2018-19 EPL Match Day 9 Preview — Chelsea (6-2-0) vs. Manchester United (4-1-3)

Jose Mourinho has yet to have a happy homecoming at Stamford Bridge since taking over Manchester United.

Another loss there to Chelsea on Saturday, however, could hasten the potential exit of “The Special One” from Old Trafford as he continues to battle the third-season woes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Mourinho has lost all three matches in South West London since taking over United (4-1-3) in 2016, watching his team get outscored 6-0 in a pair of league defeats around a quarterfinal exit in the 2017 FA Cup. The fourth and most recent defeat to his former employers in six matches with United came last spring in the FA Cup final at Wembley, denying him a second trophy since arriving on the red side of Manchester.

The term has been a slog thus far for both Mourinho and United, who have yet to find a higher gear on the pitch, which in turn has exacerbated tensions between manager and players off it. The Red Devils enter this contest in eighth place, seven points adrift of reigning champions and eternal rivals Manchester City as well as Liverpool and Chelsea.

Even during the international break, United were not drama-free as Mourinho was charged by the FA on Tuesday for using abusive, insulting or improper language. The United boss was filmed mouthing words at a camera after his team’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Newcastle United on Oct. 6, with the FA alleging he swore in Spanish.

The possible target of his rant has a list of suspects as the day is long, but ex-United midfielder-turned-pundit Paul Scholes again refused to shy away from criticising Mourinho, launching another broadside in an interview with ESPN.

“I feel like people at Liverpool and Manchester City are looking at us and laughing like we did at them many years ago,” Scholes said. “If you look across the road, they’re doing everything right.

“It feels like every player who comes into the team struggles. I feel like we could sign Lionel Messi at the moment and he’d struggle in this team. The reason we finished second last year was because of (David De Gea) the goalkeeper.”

Mourinho has until Friday to answer the charge, which could result in either a touchline ban or a fine, though he could also delay the ruling if he waits until the 6 p.m. local deadline to accept or deny the charge. In that case, he would be all but certain to be on the sideline for this contest.

United’s lineup continues to be in a state of flux outside De Gea as form coming out of the international break could provide separation for starting spots. Marcus Rashford impressed for England in UEFA Nations League play, scoring for the third time in four international matches and adding an assist in Monday’s 3-2 victory over Spain.

There were points against Newcastle when Rashford and Romelu Lukaku swapped spots leading the line – Rashford in the central role and Lukaku on the wing – but whether Mourinho commits to that switch or gives the two freedom to interchange while either Alexis Sanchez or Anthony Martial operate on the left is anyone’s guess.

Ex-Chelsea and current United holding midfielder Nemanja Matic made a quick return to Carrington after suffering a back injury that prevented him from representing Serbia. Left back Luke Shaw is also an injury concern, skipping a call-up to the Three Lions due to an ankle injury suffered in the win over Newcastle.

Shaw, though, put pen to paper on an extension to keep him at Old Trafford through 2023, and Mourinho – who put the defender through the wringer prior to him pushing on through to be one of United’s best players thus far – extolled the England international’s virtues.

“Luke fully deserves this contract,” Mourinho said Thursday. “He understood his development process, he has worked really hard at every level and he always believes in himself which is a great attribute to have.

“Luke is still young and is improving all the time and he must feel very proud of himself. I am delighted that we are keeping such a talented young English player with a bright future ahead of him.”

Mourinho can only hope Paul Pogba’s backheel pass that set up Martial’s equaliser against the Magpies will be the start of the France international’s resurgence to the lofty heights achieved in winning the World Cup this summer. Mourinho and the midfielder have been at loggerheads from nearly the moment Pogba returned to training, and rumours regarding his potential departure continue to swirl around United.

Pogba has factored in four of United’s 13 goals in league play – scoring both his goals via penalties — but had a brace and an assist in their Champions League win over Young Boys last month.

As Manchester United lurch from crisis to crisis real and created, things are going well in Maurizio Sarri’s first season at Chelsea (6-2-0), who are bookended by Manchester City and Liverpool atop the table on goal difference. Of course, having the best player in the Premier League at the moment in Eden Hazard goes a long way to having a happy vibe, and the Belgium international has made the most his new-found freedom in Sarri-ball.

Hazard has a league-best seven goals and eight overall, thriving on the left wing of Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation and forming solid interplay with centre-forward Olivier Giroud, who has a team-leading four assists. Sarri has a defined rotation – much to the chagrin of midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the England international who cannot find consistent league playing time and may move on in January – as the Blues navigate a three-course track in the Carabao Cup and Europa League in addition to domestic duty.

One player who has surprisingly made an impact is midfielder Ross Barkley, whose improved play under Sarri’s tutelage has him neck-and-neck with Mateo Kovacic as a starter in left midfield.

Oft-injured and forgotten by the time his tenure at Everton ended in January, Barkley turned in a standout performance in the international break for England, highlighted by their 3-2 win over Spain, and club teammate Marcos Alonso was quick to give Barkley his due after his Roja side fell to defeat.

“Even at the World Cup England, despite playing well, were aware that they didn’t really have that kind of player, someone in the middle who played and made others play, who used the ball,” the left back noted to Chelsea’s official website. “He’s a great player. He showed it not just last night but against Croatia (last Friday) too. He showed that he can be a great player. I hope he keeps improving and that he helps us at Chelsea to stay near the top.”

With no injuries to report from the international break, Chelsea’s lineup will come down to Sarri’s decision-making up front with either Pedro or Willian on the right wing, Barkley or Kovacic in left midfield, and Giroud or Alvaro Morata leading the line.

Morata’s thunderous header in the 55th minute separated the sides in last season’s clash at Stamford Bridge, the Spain international drilling an inch-perfect cross from Cesar Azpilicueta into the upper right corner of the net.

Chelsea are unbeaten in their last eight at home (7-1-0) versus Manchester United in all competitions dating to a 3-2 loss Oct. 28, 2012. United have gone 299 minutes without a goal at Stamford Bridge since Jesse Lingard helped them to a 1-1 draw on Feb. 7, 2016.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are prohibitive 7/10 favourites, with United 15/4 underdogs. The odds of the teams splitting the points are slightly shorter than a road victory for Mourinho, landing at 11/4.

Oddsmakers are expecting goals in this match, as a Chelsea victory with a count over 2.5 goals leads the list of options at 31/20. A Blues victory under 2.5 goals will provide a 10/3 return, slightly ahead of a low-scoring draw at 4/1. For those who fancy United, they have 13/2 odds on a win with more than 2.5 goals and 9/1 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 win.

For the first goal-scorer of the match, Morata, Hazard and Giroud are all joint-favourites at 4/1, with Pedro behind the trio at 6/1. Willian, who often interchanges with Pedro, is right behind him at 13/2, and is followed by Lukaku as United’s top option at 7/1. Rashford is the second-rated United option at 17/2.

Morata and Giroud narrowly edge out Hazard as favourites for any-time goal scorers, getting 11/8 odds compared to Hazard’s 13/10. Pedro has 2/1 odds, again edging out Willian (21/10), while Lukaku (12/5) and Rashford (14/5) flank Chelsea’s Victor Moses (13/5).

PREDICTION

To park the bus or not to park the bus? That is the question facing Mourinho as he makes another trek to his former stomping grounds. Last season, he let United play open for most of the match at Stamford Bridge, a curious contrast to the FA Cup final in the last meeting between the teams in which the Mancunians conceded a penalty to Hazard and could not muster much offence without the injured Lukaku.

United’s form means there is little time for sentimentality for Mourinho, who offered a prickly reminder to the media earlier this season his three Premier League titles won at Chelsea are more than the other current 19 managers combined, saying Friday:

“For me, it’s another game. Would I celebrate like crazy, my team’s goal at Stamford Bridge or my team’s victory at Stamford Bridge? I don’t think so. I think I would try always to control myself and to respect the stadium and the supporters who were my supporters and [what was] my stadium for many years.

“So I think that I would always think about where I am, which stadium I am [in], which crowd is in the stands, but just that. Apart from that, it is just another match for me. It is a match that I want to do well in, for my players, my team, for my supporters – that’s what I want. I am 100 per cent Manchester United tomorrow [Saturday], but there is no space for anything more than respect for the stadium and for the fans that were my fans before.“

There is a chance Chelsea could have another high-quality thriller like their two previous contests with Liverpool, just like there is a chance Mourinho sets up to play for the point and take his chances on the counter. But United’s first order of business is finding a central defence partner with Chris Smalling, whether it be Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly, and how their spine may slump depending on the fitness of Matic and Marouane Fellaini.

United’s dramatic win over Newcastle came at the best time and the worst time. It came at the best time because they could feel good about themselves for two weeks after pulling out three points from a match they had no business getting any for the first 70 minutes, but it came at the worst time because they could not immediately build on the momentum of this win.

On the other side, things appear to be well with Chelsea as everyone appeared to have a productive international break across Europe, and more importantly, no one got hurt. The 4-3-3 machine will wind up once more, with Sarri’s personnel choices the talking points more than the players, though Hazard is in arguably the best form of his club career.

Antonio Rudiger is a question mark due to a groin injury, but Andreas Christensen played well in the FA Cup final win over Manchester United, and there should not be much fall-off in central defence if he has to partner with David Luiz as the German’s replacement.

It will be curious to see if Barkley again gets the nod over Kovacic after his solid play for England during the break. It is a sign of how well Sarri’s system has taken at Chelsea he is almost at the point of plugging and playing personnel at spots in the Premier League compared to his preference of horses for courses with Giroud and Morata in Europa League.

This will not be an easy contest by any stretch of the imagination, but the track record of Mourinho being on the defensive against the Premier League’s best on the road will finally going bite him here. There does not appear to be enough in United’s spine to keep Chelsea off the scoreboard for 90 minutes unless De Gea turns in his best match of the season, and the Blues midfield might be able to boss this match through Jorginho and Kante’s two-way work.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: CHELSEA 1, Manchester United 0

OTHER MATCH DAY 9 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (6-2-0) vs. Burnley (2-2-4)
West Ham United (2-1-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (6-0-2)
Wolverhampton (4-3-1) vs. Watford (4-1-3)
Arsenal (6-0-2) vs. Leicester City (4-0-4)

Author: Chris Altruda

Currently a freelance sportswriter on the hunt for full-time work. If you like my work or have constructive criticism, please share it and/or contact me at chris.altruda@hotmail.com or via Twitter at @AlTruda73 My portfolio of clippings can be viewed at http://www.clippings.me/caltruda And thank you for taking time out of your day to read my posts.

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