When the fixtures were revealed back in the summer, a meeting between 20-time champions Manchester United and current title holders Chelsea, in the midst of the hectic Christmas schedule, looked set to be a contest with major title implications. But for both Premier League heavyweights this season has very much not run to plan. Instead when they clash at Old Trafford on Monday, both will be under big pressure to start turning their miserable campaigns around.
For Louis van Gaal, it could well represent his final chance to convince his Old Trafford bosses that he is the right man to guide the club to an expected title challenge this season. The Dutchman has led Manchester United to four straight defeats for the first time in more than half a century. Already that run has seen United knocked out of the Champions League and fall to sixth place in the Premier League, nine points off the top.
Van Gaal has cut an increasingly dejected figure in recent days. Ahead of a Boxing Day match at Stoke City, he requested an apology from members of the media for reports he was about to be fired. And following a 2-0 defeat he then hinted that he could walk away from his role. Reports have suggested that even a victory against Chelsea may not be enough to save his job. And Van Gaal has admitted that he faces a tough task to turn the team’s fortunes around.
“When you lose four matches in a row it’s much more difficult,” he said. “It’s like that and the pressure of the environment shall increase so it’s much more difficult. There are no artificial ways to solve that. We need a victory and that’s very important. But we have to do our professional work and our preparation and our recovery. But now we can only recover. We cannot train.”
It just so happens that what could be Van Gaal’s final game comes against the club that recently made his potential replacement available. Jose Mourinho has been strongly linked with taking over at Manchester United since being dismissed at Chelsea two weeks ago.
That development may be considered something of a surprise given how tumultuous this season had been under him at Stamford Bridge. Rather than competing to defend their title, Chelsea instead find themselves battling at the wrong end of the table, as well as having experienced a range of off-field issues. For the second time in his career, Guus Hiddink was brought in to perform a rescue job at Stamford Bridge, although even he has admitted that his task is far more difficult this time around than when he replaced Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2009.
The veteran Dutch coach had an ideal start when beating Sunderland 3-1, but the scale of the problems at the club became clearer during a 2-2 draw at home to Watford on Boxing Day. And on Monday Hiddink will be without the man who scored both goals against Watford, Diego Costa. With the Spain striker suspended and former Manchester United man Radamel Falcao not yet ready to return from injury, Loic Remy is Chelsea’s only fit striker.
Still, despite his team lying in 15th place in the Premier League title, just two points off the relegation zone, Hiddink insists he has no regrets about deciding to take on the challenge at Chelsea.
“When I was asked [to return] I could have said I wanted to relax at home, I had plans to go on holiday, but my partner looked into my eyes when I got the call and said ‘we’re not going on holiday, we’re going to London,’ which means I had the feeling I could contribute something,” he said, reports Chelsea’s official website.
“For me, when I literally feel the thrill in my stomach, I say okay, step forward and that was the case. It’s always nice to be involved in intense games, as it was on Saturday and as it will be again tonight.”
Prediction: The fall has been a dramatic one at Manchester United. While the performances have never been thrilling this season, there had been a solidity to the team that meant they could still pick up good results. Now, though, no area of the side is convincing and Van Gaal sounds like a man who no longer believes he can turn it around. The good news for United is that Chelsea are still in a fragile state themselves. And without Costa, they may lack the decisiveness up front to land a knockout blow.
Predicted score: Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea
Kickoff time: 12:30 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra