In a must-win game for both sides, league leaders Manchester United travel to Stamford Bridge to take on falling champions Chelsea in the English Premier League on Tuesday.
The tie was originally scheduled for December before unsuitable weather conditions postponed the much anticipated encounter to March. Back then however, Chelsea were just three points behind United and on the initial stages of their slump. The gap is fifteen now.
Many clubs would shudder at the thought of a visit from Manchester United. However, Chelsea boast an impressive home record against the Red Devils. The last time the Blues lost at home to United was way back in April 2002. They have been unbeaten in the eight home league games since having won five and drawing three.
However, Chelsea will find it difficult to maintain that record, given their abysmal form this season. Initial results pointed towards Chelsea comfortably retaining the title. Since then an unprecedented slump, and a big one at that, has seen them slip to fifth in the table, fifteen points behind United, with no hope of retaining the title while facing a struggle to win a Champions League spot.
Off-field problems haven't helped them either. The past week has seen heavy media speculation after news of Ashley Cole shooting a Chelsea intern at the club's training ground was leaked. Cole was larking around with a .22 air rifle under the assumption that it was not loaded and he accidentally shot Tom Cowan, a 21-year-old work placement student at the Club. Looking past the obvious question of what he was doing with a gun at work, it raises doubts of the team's discipline and focus as the incident happened a day after Cole missed the decisive penalty in Chelsea's shootout loss and elimination to Everton in the FA Cup 4th round replay.
All in all, it has been a season to forget for Chelsea. Having said that, a visit from their bitter-rivals, given the funny ways in which the game works, could just be the spark that Chelsea needs to make the best of the remainder of the season. Though they hold no hope of retaining the title, even though it is mathematically possible, among the four English sides in the Champions Leaguer they are the favorites to qualify for the quarter-finals after their 2-0 away win at Copenhagen last week.
Though it was their first win in four games, Chelsea did show signs of returning to their former selves. Nicholas Anelka was in red-hot form scoring both goals. More important was his understanding with £50m January signing Fernando Torres. The two up front in a 4-4-2 saw Torres and Anelka combine well on many occasions and the only thing missing was Torres' first goal for Chelsea. Having had a week to prepare for United, Chelsea will be looking to end the season on a high. And denting United's title hopes will go a long way to that extent.
Manchester United, however, will be looking to further demoralize Arsenal with a win at the Bridge. Arsenal suffered a morale-puncturing loss in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham, and United will want to further dishearten their nearest rival with a win against the Blues.
The Red Devils come to the game on the back of a 4-0 win at the DW Stadium. The scoreline flatters United though as Wigan had kept the leaders on their toes for most of the game. The first half saw Hernandez score for the visitors against the run of play, and Van der Sar then had to make two brilliant saves to keep United in the tie. However, with a little over 15 minutes left in the game, United scored three goals in thirteen minutes to take all three points.
Controversy marred the win though. Wayne Rooney was seen deliberately elbowing Wigan's James McCarthy, just yards away from referee Clattenburg, who awarded Wigan a free-kick, whilst they appealed for a red card. Though many expected Rooney to be punished in retrospect with a three-match ban, which would have seen him miss trips to Chelsea and Liverpool, The FA on Monday stated that they were powerless under their own legislation as Clattenburg believed he made the right decision. It led to Wigan chairman Dave Whelan claiming that referees were afraid of United.
It was an unnecessary distraction for United ahead of a crucial week in their campaign for the title. After the visit to Chelsea, they face a tricky tie against Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. Their performance in the two games will have a major say in where the title ends up. Despite a shaky away form, United are top thanks to their consistency and their ability to grind out results. It'll be the same qualities that'll help them against a determined Chelsea side.
Chelsea's trip to Old Trafford is in May. By that time, United could already have won the title. Tuesday's tie is Chelsea's chance to have a say in where the title goes. They can't win it, but they wield it. United will know what to expect from Chelsea. It could be classic!
Team News -
Chelsea have Yuri Zhirkov back and he could make his first league appearance since November. Only Alex and Benayoun are out with long-standing injuries.
Manchester United should have Ryan Giggs and Michael Owen back from respective injuries, but Anderson, Evans, Valencia, Ferdinand and Park are all sidelined with injuries.
Match Fact -
Chelsea are unbeaten in their last eight home league games against Manchester United, winning five and drawing three. United haven't scored in five of their last seven Premier League visits to Chelsea.
Though they are almost out of it, as John Terry said last week, Chelsea have the faintest hopes of retaining the title, and a win today could make it a little bit brighter. United are no easy side though, especially at the end of the season when they are traditionally strong. Having said that, Chelsea are desperate and a nervy, controversial and heated encounter could end 2-1 in favor of the Blues.