Friday, 17 April 2015

FOR SECOND PLACE

So there is minute chance that Manchester United, against all human odds, could yet become Champions of England this season. In what would be the greatest comeback to league success in football history, United would require both Chelsea to mess it up big time in a manner not too dissimilar to how we let City back in it 3 years ago.

At the time, United held an eight point lead going into the last 7 games until we somehow contrived to lose at Wigan Athletic and the rest is bad history. Notably though, City were favoured by the fact that they had to play us in one of those final games and so our biggest mistake was going into that game just the three points ahead of them.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea are miles, not three points, ahead of us in the league ahead of our meeting at Stamford Bridge at tea-time tomorrow. The only way Chelsea lose the league from this position must involve a tag team effort between Manchester United and Arsenal, the league's form sides. Both would have to claim wins against the Blues to draw them 6 points closer (1 point ahead of Arsenal, and 2 from us) and make rat race for the title. It is a most unlikely scenario, not least because of Jose Mourinho's know how to get over the line but there's almost nothing else to get us excited for the last 6 games of the season.

Perhaps defeat at Stamford Bridge will breathe life into the race for the Champions League places, but last week's tremendous victory against City and the manner of it all but booked a place in the Champions League next season. The way United are playing at the moment seems to have a touch of auto-pilot about it and that is not least because of more or less a settled team for the first time in ages. Everyone seemed to understand their roles so much so that it is no longer necessary to second guess and double-analyse the pattern of play.

But therein lies the challenge ahead of us at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho is many things but he is no fool to be caught unawares by a problem he has had all of a month to ponder over. In many ways, Saturday will be the ultimate tactical test against the new found 4-3-3 fluid system under which the penny has suddenly dropped for us.

In all probability, Jose shall put someone like  Zouma, as an extra defender on that left hand side of Marouanne Fellaini and possibly along with Ramirez to double up on him and keep him. It is already apparent that the left hand side has been a channel through which United have stormed to all those victories against top sides. Blocking that is but one of the means of cutting off the danger lines. If Zouma and Ramirez get that right, Nemanja Matic will simply be left with the task of nullifying the threat of Carrick and Herrera in the middle. After sucking all that in, he will rely on the brilliance of Hazard or Fabregas to win them the game or hold on for a draw.

It might not play out like that but the Portuguese pragmatist will have spent the week working out exactly how to stop United. It is testament to the leaps and bounds we have made this season that we head to the home of the Champions-elect with our hosts sweating with tactics to stop us as opposed to us working on ways to contain them. The best sides in the world do not adapt to opponents, opponents adapt to them. We shall see who blinks on Saturday.

For Louis van Gaal, Plan B may need to be the focus ahead of this tie because so far, United have not been forced by any opponent to change it from a 4-3-3. If we play an hour with nothing doing, the temptation to try something different and give Chelsea more to think about will increase and hence the need for a ready Plan B. We've played more systems than the stars in the night sky this season so changing it in-game should be child's play to the players involved. With a bench that should include the likes of Di Maria et al, Take 2, should not be too difficult to fathom.

Chelsea are very much likely to play on the counter-attack right from the off, and so Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have their work cut out to halt the Belgian's progress. With a high pressing line adopted recently, expect a few long balls over the top to the mercurial winger. It means there could be a couple of one on one races with Hazard vs any of our centre-backs, a race that has only one winner all over it. His desire to dribble his way into the penalty box gives him an advantage of using his quick feet to win penalties for his side. In fact, Jose is so reliant on his enterprise that taking him out of a game is about half the job done against his Chelsea side.

Regardless of the tactics, Saturday evening is odds on to be a very entertaining time for the arm chair viewer, it is afterall Jose Mourinho vs Louis van Gaal, perhaps the league's 2 most tactically astute managers. United can dream of the title if they come away from London with all 3 points. It is a predicament that Jose would very much want to avoid. With Arsenal not involved this weekend because of the FA Cup, United could claim second place for the first time this season.

 Ultimately though, Saturday is a first big test for where Manchester United are in terms of their ability to challenge for the title next season. Having not tested ourselves this term against the cream of Europe owing to our absence from European competition, Saturday's opponents are the toughest we can possibly face in the country and so it is a very welcome yardstick to measure just how much more United need to make it to the summit of English football once more. It will definitely send shock waves through the premier league if United do to Chelsea what they have done to the rest of the top sides in the league.


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