Timing is right for United at the Bridge
This is the thirteenth piece in our season-long survey of the big games this season in European football. Check out the FoxSoccer.com archive for past installments, and stay with the Fox family all season long for in-depth introductions to the clubs, the players, and the history of the European game for American readers.
The championship won't be decided, but there are some major issues on the line in a critical weekend in the Barclay's' Premier League.
Sunday’s clash between Manchester United and Chelsea (now postponed due to weather) could see United leave the reigning champs in a deeper hole. Or, the listing Blues could right their ship and put the Red Devils in the unfamiliar position of chasing their neighbors from Manchester City.
They are also beginning to show their typical and predictable mid-season form. It’s rarely flashy or expansive, but United move the ball at speed and control the midfield to devastating effect, most recently seen in their 1-0 win last Monday over Arsenal, a win far more comprehensive than the final scoreline suggests. United also came away from that game with the knowledge that their squad players -- particularly Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic -- are beginning to show the resilience and steadiness that a champion requires.
Then there's Wayne Rooney, who has battled injury, ugly publicity and exhaustion since this past summer’s World Cup. He is finally showing the kind of acumen up top United fans are used to. Against Arsenal, while he was curiously isolated, Rooney nonetheless showed a hunger for the ball and a classy first touch. Where Rooney’s touch deserted him was at the penalty spot -- he skied an attempt into the upper decks in one of the classic whiffs so far this season.
Chelsea should have won their match last Sunday against Tottenham, but like United, saw a penalty denied. In Didier Drogba’s case, his penalty was on frame -- it was just well-saved. That’s cold comfort for a team that had shown growing confidence in a frenetic second half performance. That the match is considered the best so far staged in the Premier League this season could be encouraging for Carlo Ancelloti’s men whose loss of domination has coincided with the absence of Frank Lampard. While Chelsea seemed to be able to cover for his injury in September, the past two months have seen a decline in their midfield control and fewer opportunities for the lethal front-runners to finish.
The Blues’ problems don’t begin and end there. Drogba, still suffering from the after-effects of a bout with malaria, has not been himself, but it’s equally clear that Chelsea are not getting the production they must have expected from his compatriots when they allowed Joe Cole and Ricardo Carvalho to pull up stakes in summer.
New boys Ramires and Daniel Sturridge have not shown the cutting edge required at the top level, and Florent Malouda has not so far been able to repeat last year’s revelatory performances. In addition to Lampard's long-term absence, injury has cost Yossi Benayoun at least six months, and captain John Terry has been far from his commanding best.
Terry may also be hurting Chelsea in more indirect ways. Some have pegged him as the force behind the dismissal of longtime assistant Ray Wilkins, who was unceremoniously axed last month. Terry, who was effectively made “Mr. Chelsea” by dint of his large contract and captaincy, has a history. He showed how poisonous he can be in the run-up to this past summer’s World Cup, when it was revealed he had carried on an affair with an England teammate’s girlfriend.
United have had their own fair share of soap, with seamy tabloid reports about Rooney preceding an ugly contract standoff that set many of the Old Trafford faithful against a player they once adored.
The difference between the two situations? Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s no-nonsense manager, and a man who consistently has shown an ability to defuse toxic situations.
United have to feel confident that they can finally snatch three points at the Bridge on Sunday. They have a fully healthy squad and real confidence. Chelsea still seem to be waiting for the other shoe to fall. Ancelotti was given the dreaded vote of confidence last week by owner Roman Abramovich, a man not known for patience.
It's a mix that should favor the team in red this time.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and European football.