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Chelsea-Manchester United Preview
It could be glass half-empty or glass half-full for both Chelsea and Manchester United, who come off their mid-week first-leg draws in the round of 16 of Champions League play to face off in this crunch match of top-four sides Sunday at Old Trafford.
Chelsea (16-5-6) have a tenuous hold on the fourth and final Champions League spot in the table, entering the weekend one point ahead of Tottenham Hotspur yet only three back of United (17-5-5) for second. While it would be a highly unlikely result, a 3-0 victory in this match would move the Pensioners ahead of Manchester United for second on goals scored.
The Blues played Barcelona to a 1-1 draw Tuesday at home in their first-leg round of 16 Champions League tie. Willian had a deserved goal on 62 minutes after having two first-half shots hit either post, but they allowed a crucial away goal 15 minutes from time when Andreas Christensen's ghastly giveaway resulted in a turnover and clinical strike by Lionel Messi.
The equaliser dampened the mood on what was a standout performance from Chelsea in their third straight match since the nadir of a 4-1 thrashing by Watford on Feb. 5, but manager Antonio Conte was full of praise for his players and defended the 21-year-old Christensen.
"Willian has the potential to play this type of game in every game and I hope to see this for a long time," the manager said. "Against Hull he was fantastic, tonight he was fantastic and when you play in this way the coach doesn't have any doubts about you playing.
"I think Christensen had a great performance, incredible. He's only 21 years old. It's great he's able to play the game with this maturity and personality. I'm very happy. Christensen, for me, was one of the best players. I repeat, he played a top game and I'm really pleased with his performance."
The draw kicked off a brutal five-match gauntlet in which Chelsea will face champions-elect Manchester City on the road March 4 and a tricky London derby opponent in Crystal Palace before traveling to the Nou Camp for their second-leg match against Barcelona.
One would expect Conte to restore striker Olivier Giroud to the first XI after employing Eden Hazard as a false No. 9 against Barcelona as the Belgium international interplayed well with Willian and Pedro. The trio has accounted for six of Chelsea's eight goals in the last three contests, and Giroud has one goal and three assists in his first three matches since moving across north London from Arsenal in the January window.
Giroud's rapid and seamless transition has also put Alvaro Morata's status up in the air. The Spain international was a late entrant Tuesday night and only had a yellow card to show for his seven-minute stint. Morata has gone nine matches without a goal since bagging the winner versus Brighton & Hove Albion on Boxing Day.
As Jose Mourinho so often does, he opted for caginess for his first-leg Champions League match as Manchester United played Sevilla to a scoreless draw on the road Wednesday. That favourable result came down mostly to the stellar play of goalkeeper David De Gea, whose reflex save with his right hand on a bullet header by Luis Murriel late in the first half was the best of his eight in the match.
"It was a good moment and a good save, of course, especially because of the moment of the game - the last minute in the first half," De Gea told MUTV. "It was important we didn't concede a goal. We defended well. I think they had control of the game, but the result is open."
The match stats bore out De Gea's observation as United were outshot 25-6 overall and had just one effort on target despite only a slight disadvantage in possession. Yet Mourinho is confident the aura of a Champions League knockout match at The Theatre of Dreams will give United a boost.
"You ask me, 'is it a good result?' I say, it's not good, it's not bad," he said. "We have two legs to play and we have one match to decide everything at Old Trafford. For sure, Old Trafford misses knockout Champions League. Yes, last season we had Europa League knockout, which obviously is not the same. In previous years, I think we were out in the group phase, so I think Old Trafford is a big Champions League night we want to have."
Before that return match in less than a fortnight, though, Mourinho must end the malaise that is plaguing Paul Pogba. Originally dropped from the starting XI on Wednesday night, the France international was pressed into duty in the 17th minute after Ander Herrera pulled up with a hamstring injury.
Pogba was by and large anonymous against Sevilla, but Mourinho also may have found the holding midfielder to pair with Nemanja Matic in Scott McTominay, who turned in a strong effort that allowed Pogba to push forward at times.
"He did everything well," Mourinho said about McTominay, United's academy product. "The midfield started very well and Paul made a big effort to go into the dynamic when he came on and he had a positive performance. He looked a senior player, he looked a player with great maturity, with tactical sense, with a sense of responsibility, good in possession, good in the pressing.
"I think Scott McTominay looked a man with dozens and dozens of matches in the Champions League, when this is only the second one."
Herrera is certain to miss this match, and Mourinho appears to be expecting a long-term absence after calling it "a bad injury" in his post-match news conference.
Morata's sublime header on 55 minutes off a cross from Cesar Azpilicueta stood as the match-winner in the reverse fixture, a 1-0 Chelsea victory at Stamford Bridge on Nov. 5. Pogba did not play in the match due to a hamstring injury, and United were unable to create many chances for striker Romelu Lukaku.
Chelsea are 3-0-1 in the last four matches between the sides and have just one loss in the last 14 matches (8-5-1) in this rivalry since United posted a 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge on Oct. 28, 2012. The Pensioners are unbeaten in their last four league matches (1-3-0) at Old Trafford and 4-4-1 there in the last nine over all competitions.
Updated February 23, 2018