Between them they may have been champions in nine of the last 11 seasons, but when Chelsea and Manchester United renew their blockbuster rivalry at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, there will significantly less glamor than usual. For both teams, ambitions of adding another title to their collection this season have been pushed firmly out of focus with both suffering traumatic campaigns.
Chelsea’s collapse from champions last season to battling at the other end of the table this campaign has been the most sensational fall in the Premier League era. It cost the club's most successful manager, Jose Mourinho, his job in December. And, while results have picked up since, even qualifying for Europa League remains a tall order.
Still, they can take encouragement from a run of 10 matches unbeaten since Guus Hiddink took the reins on Dec. 19, even if five of those have been draws.
“We're getting back on track,” Hiddink said, reports Sky Sports. “I'd like to have more victories than the draws, but I think the team is step-by-step more stable and now we hope to go into a beautiful springtime.”
Hiddink also confirmed there will not yet be a role for January loan signing Alexandre Pato, who still needs to build up fitness having not played since the end of the Brazilian season at the start of December.
It is unclear whether Pato will be part of Chelsea’s plans next season, and the same is true of John Terry. The longtime Chelsea captain stated after last weekend’s FA Cup win over Milton Keynes Dons that he had not been offered a new contract and planned to leave in the summer. Chelsea, however, continue to insist that they have not yet made a decision on his future.
With a new manager set to take over, there is plenty of uncertainty at Stamford Bridge. And the same is true at Old Trafford. Having been knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage and currently sitting fifth in the Premier League, speculation continues to rumble over the future of Louis van Gaal. While so far he has clung onto his job, the prospects of him remaining in charge beyond this season look slim. And the favorite to take the reins is none other than Mourinho.
Still, Van Gaal has had more reason to smile in the past week, having enjoyed two rare comfortable victories, over Derby County in the FA Cup and Stoke City in the Premier League. Van Gaal, who was succeeded as Netherlands coach in 2014 by a short and unsuccessful spell by Hiddink, has lamented the injuries which he believe resulted in the team’s disastrous form in December. However, he has claimed that, despite being 10 points back of first-placed Leicester City, United are not necessarily out of the Premier League title race.
“We don’t have to exaggerate but I have the feeling if we shall beat Chelsea—and that is very difficult because under Guus Hiddink they don’t lose, then I think our league shall start again,” he said in his pre-match press conference.
“Today Michael Carrick said that to me and I have the same feeling, the competition is still not yet finished, not for Manchester United and not for the other teams.
“We have the feeling, and that's because we are winning twice in a row with sparkling football, with goals, with clean sheets, against opponents who were in great form because Stoke City played Liverpool off the pitch in the Capital One Cup but lost on penalties. But we have to show it in a row of games that we win.”
Van Gaal could be boosted by the return of Phil Jones on Sunday, although Bastian Schweinsteiger, Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw remain sidelined.
D: Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry, Azpilicueta
M: Mikel, Matic
Willian, Fabregas, Hazard
G: De Gea
D: Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson
M: Carrick, Fellaini
Lingard, Mata, Martial
Prediction: The last three games between these teams have produced just three goals, and it could be another cagey affair at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Although Chelsea are not the force of old this season, they have quality players who are beginning to find their sparkle again. Van Gaal may well view a point, and another game unbeaten as a positive outcome. And the same could well be true for Hiddink and Chelsea.
Predicted score: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United
Match time: 11 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra