Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Chelsea v Manchester United Preview

One of the most iconic images from the past few years of Champions League football has been John Terry, bursting into tears after missing the deciding penalty in the 2008 shoot-out in Moscow. Leaving aside the obvious jokes about Englishmen and penalties, much of Chelsea’s journey since then has been about erasing that particular memory. It’s no secret that owner Roman Abramovich’s biggest desire is to secure the Champions League trophy, and while the massive piles of oil money that have been sunk into the West London have earned 3 Premier League titles, 3 F.A. Cups, and 2 League Cups, there is still a large European Cup-shaped gap in the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet.
In contrast, Chelsea’s vanquishers that night have won absolutely everything since Alex Ferguson took over; too many to list here, but it’s safe to say that the guy from Cash4Gold would have some kind of stroke if you showed up with all of the trophies, presumably in a large wheelbarrow.
Both of these teams have had a relatively trouble-free passage into the quarter-finals; they both won their group stage rather convincingly, before getting the job done against perhaps two of the smaller teams left in the competition (Copenhagen and Olympique Marseille). It’s the Premier League however, that the two clubs’ fortune to date have varied.
Domestically, Manchester United are leading the Premier League – and look set to waltz off with their 19th English title, taking them past the 18 of rivals Liverpool. Chelsea currently sit fourth, 11 points behind.
The league campaign has generally been an uncomfortable one for Chelsea. A flying start saw them top of the table in the early stages of the season, but injuries to key players (particularly Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard) have seen them drop away from the title contenders, instead become embroiled in a battle for a top four finish (and hence a berth in next season’s Champions’ League.). The uncertainty over the squad led to a transfer splurge in January, with defender David Luiz and striker Fernando Torres both signing for the club in big-money deals. So far, only one of these can be said to have been a success; Luiz has made an immediate impact at the Bridge, including when scoring a goal in that Premier League win over Man Utd in March. £50M man Torres has been less successful; he has yet to score a goal since his acrimonious move from Liverpool, and just last weekend he was dropped from the starting lineup.
What makes things worse for the West London club is that Luiz is ineligible for this match, having already played in the competition this season for former club Benfica. That makes it likely that Terry will be partnered at back by Branislav Ivanovic, with Chelsea’s other Brazilian centre back, Alex, not expected to be fit until next weekend. Chelsea have no new injury concerns – Yossi Benayoun is back in training along with Alex but is unlikely to play a part. The most interesting personnel decision facing coach Carlo Ancelotti is whether or nor to recall Torres to the starting XI. That choice may have been easier had Chelsea won convincingly at the weekend, but a misfiring Blues were held 1-1 at Stoke City; although the Blues goal was created by Nicolas Anelka and scored by Drogba.
Manchester United have one or two injuries of their own to contend with – Darren Fletcher has a virus, while defenders John O’Shea and Wes Brown will also be missing. Set against that is the welcome return of Rio Ferdinand, potentially to rejoin Nemanja Vidic in heart of the defence, as well as the likelihood that midfielder Anderson will also be able to play.
Alex Ferguson has suggested in pre-match press conferences that he expects to win the game at Stamford Bridge, and take a lead back to Manchester to defend. In all probability this is one of wily Scotsman’s attempts at “mind games” – you can be sure that he would be very happy with a draw from this, especially a score draw. For Chelsea’s part, they really need that highly expensive strike force to come to the party. If they fail at this stage of the Champions League there is a very good chance that they’ll end the season without a trophy, and despite the owner’s obsession with this competition, everybody knows that an empty trophy case could spell the end for Ancelotti.
Whichever of this teams progresses will; surely fancy their chances against the leaky defences of either reigning champions Inter Milan, or (more likely) German team Schalke 04, who recorded an amazing 5-2 away win that San Siro on Tuesday evening.

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