After just one win from his side’s last five Premier League matches, Jose Mourinho’s former home will be the venue for his attempts to reignite Manchester United’s title challenge on Sunday. Mourinho led Chelsea to three championships in two spells at Stamford Bridge and will now return there for the first time as a Premier League rival in a contest that already looks as if it could have significant title implications.
After a flying start to his reign, winning his opening three league matches, United has gone on a stuttering run that has seen them fall to eighth place in the table. Chelsea sits two points and three places better off, although the Portuguese was in no mood to be drawn on his former club and the man who replaced him – Antonio Conte.
“I don’t have to analyze their start to the season,” Mourinho said in his pre-match press conference. “But you look to the table and you see where they are. They are in a good position. So the start of the season cannot be bad if they are where they are.
“I knew that working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later, I had to play against Chelsea and go to Stamford Bridge. The computer has decided it is to go now. And here we go."
The match will be the second time Mourinho has been on the opposing side at Stamford Bridge, having taken his Inter Milan team there in the Champions League in 2010. He was victorious on that occasion and, following on from an unbeaten home league record in his first spell as Chelsea manager, declared he was “lucky” at Stamford Bridge.
However, that record disintegrated last season, when he saw his side lose four times on home turf, including his last match there, against Bournemouth on Dec. 5 last year. He was sacked just one game later.
Finishing the season under interim manager Guus Hiddink, Chelsea could only finish 10th. Having appointed former Juventus and Italy coach Conte this summer, the London side is targeting a title challenge and an immediate return to the Champions League.
Like Manchester United, Chelsea has also had its stumbles under a new manager at the start of the season. Back-to-back defeats to potential rivals Liverpool and Arsenal last month were a significant setback, but Chelsea recovered with wins over Hull City and champions Leicester City in its last two outings.
Conte accepts that Sunday’s game will be no regular fixture, but stresses that there should be no room for sentiment once the action gets underway.
“He was an important manager for Chelsea,” the Italian said. “With the club and the players, he wrote a part of the story of this club. He deserves a good reception. When you win three championships you remain in the heart of the fans, that’s normal. Then, after the whistle, he becomes like the players of Manchester United, an enemy.”
While the focus on Sunday will be on Mourinho’s return, the encounter will also see a reunion between Conte and Paul Pogba. The French midfielder excelled under Conte after leaving Manchester United for Juventus four years ago, before he returned to Old Trafford for a world record fee this summer.
His early performances have attracted some criticism but the 23-year-old struck two goals in Manchester United’s convincing 4-1 Europa League victory over Fenerbahce on Thursday.
Defender Chris Smalling was taken off in that game after picking up a knock but Mourinho is hopeful the England international will be fit for the trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea, meanwhile, will have captain John Terry back available but will wait to make a decision on the availability of Brazilian duo Willian and Oscar.
Prediction: Mourinho went in with a game plan to contain Liverpool at Anfield on Monday night and emerged with a satisfactory goalless result. Chelsea is a less potent attacking force than Liverpool currently, and a United team buoyed by an impressive outing in the Europa League could look to be slightly more adventurous. As for Chelsea, a switch to three at the back has yielded better fluidity but the makeup of the midfield still looks less than ideal. A stalemate, which both managers may ultimately not be too disappointed by, could be on the cards.
Predicted Score: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United
Kickoff Time: Sunday, 11 a.m. EDT
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra