For weeks it has been little more than desperate optimism to proclaim the existence of an active Premier League title race. But were Manchester United to beat leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, while still far from throwing the championship chase wide open, it would make things significantly more interesting at the top.
Chelsea go into the contest with a seven-point lead over Arsenal, and a further point advantage over third-placed Manchester United, with still a game in hand on both. With just seven matches for Chelsea to play, it would take a collapse of proportions never before seen in the history of England’s top division for either Arsenal or United to lift the trophy at the end of May. Yet there is a glimmer of hope for the chasing duo in that not only do Chelsea have to play United on Saturday, but they will then take on Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium eight days later. Throw in the visit to Stamford Bridge of Champions League chasing Liverpool, and Chelsea’s run-in is far from straightforward.
And their recent form has not exactly been overwhelmingly convincing. They have won their last three Premier League games, but by single-goal margins against Hull City, Stoke City and Queens Park Rangers. Indeed, their winning goal in all three came with a major assistance from a goalkeeping error. The fluid attacking play that brushed aside the opposition in the first half of the season and earned such plaudits faded in the heart of winter and has yet to return.
That dip has mirrored Cesc Fabregas losing the sparkle that initially brought such an attacking verve to Chelsea after his arrival from Barcelona. The Spanish midfielder registered his 19th assist of the season as Chelsea brilliantly disposed of Swansea City 5-0 in the middle of January, but he has produced just three more in the 13 games since.
The goals of Diego Costa, who arrived with Fabregas last summer to transform Chelsea’s attacking options, have also dried up as his hamstring problems have resurfaced. The striker will again be missing against Manchester United, with manager Jose Mourinho stating that he doesn’t expect him back until the final four games of the season. Against QPR, with Loic Remy also unavailable, 37-year-old Didier Drogba struggled leading the line, and thus Chelsea will surely hope that, as expected, Remy is back available for the visit of United.
Chelsea are unlikely to find their next opponents as generous as their last three. As the leaders have faded, Manchester United have hit their stride spectacularly. Since embarking on an unenviable run of fixtures that threatened to derail their hopes of a desperately craved return to the Champions League, Louis van Gaal’s side have cast adrift the one-paced sluggishness and frequent blunders that characterized their play for much of the campaign. In its place has come a finely tuned team in which every player knows and performs the role ascribed to them by the meticulous Van Gaal.
Perhaps most noteworthy has been that at the heart of the turnaround in performances have been players that until recently looked to have little future at Old Trafford. Previously derided winger Ashley Young is justifiably keeping the most expensive player in the history of the English game, Angel di Maria, out of the lineup. Meanwhile, Spanish duo Ander Herrera and Juan Mata have added, respectively, vital dynamism and creativity to United’s play, after previously appearing to have earned little faith from Van Gaal.
Most eye-catching of all, though, has been the transformation of Marouane Fellaini from £28 million misfit into the hub of the team’s attacking play. The task of deciphering how to counter the powerful Belgian’s almost unique position as a deep-lying target man has been failed by Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City in recent weeks. How Mourinho and Chelsea deal with it could be crucial to determining the outcome of Saturday’s contest.
But if there is any manager capable of devising a plan to do just that, then it is perhaps Mourinho. Likewise, there is arguably no manager more able to get a required result when his team are not at their flowing best. That ability should see Chelsea avoid defeat on Saturday to take another step toward a title that has long seemed destined for Stamford Bridge.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 12:30 p.m.
D: Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta
M: Ramires, Matic
Willian, Fabregas, Hazard
Manchester United (4-1-4-1)
G: De Gea
D: Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Blind
Mata, Herrera, Fellaini, Young