The fact that we are not involved in Europe this season means that we do not have to look far or wait long before we come up against the toughest opposition we can face this season. The challenge this term is solely domestic so the best at home shall invariably provide our most difficult fixture of the season, at least on paper.
Chelsea and City are widely recognised as the strongest pair of sides in the premier league. It's therefore anyone's pick which of the pair fit the dub of our most difficult opponent this term. The title of this preview should at this point make sense.
United have mostly so far been up against sides that finished below 11th in the league last year and yet have a mere 12 points from 8 games. The visit of Chelsea is therefore supposed to spell doom for us. In fact, anything other than a Chelsea win on Sunday has been taken as beyond the realms of possibility. Such is the unbalanced nature of our squad that the expectation is that a very balanced Chelsea outfit shall easily pick off United at will.
The reality is we cannot kid ourselves that we are at the level of Chelsea. The one thing that they can do better than us is perhaps the most crucial in a football match....defend. In effect, comeback wins against Chelsea are not the kind of thing we shall hear of often. They protect what they have, and merely add to that by opportunity rather than design. Jose Mourinho has always set out his team to score the first goal, as he is a master of organising his teams to suck up pressure and then hit on the counter for the killer blow.
It's no suprise then that the likes of Oscar and Fabregas have impressive defensive and tackling statistics and yet we know them as creative flair players.
Chelsea are therefore helped defensively by the ability to defend as a team but attack in smaller units. It's a philosophy that has made Mourinho a winner even when his side do not entertain or are over whelmed in possession.
The 2010 Champions League final between Inter coached by Mourinho and Bayern coached by van Gaal is a typical example. Jose's game plan revolved around getting that first goal. Inter therefore started off with shots from just about anywhere on the pitch. When Milito put them ahead, it was very basic from thereon. Defend deep and hit on the break. A 2-0 victory with just 34% of possession.
This, however, is not to suggest that Jose's teams are low scorers. Far from it. They do score more than 2 often, but as mentioned earlier, by opportunity rather than design. It is therefore not uncommon for them to hit 5 on the counter owing to availability of space left by their opponents who are searching for the equaliser. Their 6-3 result at Goodison Park is a perfect illustration of this.
Louis van Gaal must at least be remotely aware of all the above. How he plans to counter it is what makes for intriguing viewing on Sunday. More than anything, Sunday is about how the premier league's best tacticians match up. On his part, Jose has to neutralise a United attack that boasts numerous facets on unpredictibility as well as the simply unplayable as Gary Cahill and Terry will remember what Falcao did to them almost 3 years ago.
Our home form has been the saving grace so far this season so one hopes we can get something out of it before the game away next week.
There is a sense that United have been judged a little harshly. Sunday is an opportunity for a lot of those players to show that they are a level above what some perceive them to be.
The star quality on the pitch together with United's responsibility to go for it should make Sunday worth every penny at the stadium for those lucky to be there or pub for those unfortunate like yours truly.
I certainly can't wait.