Only Jose Mourinho could spin his side mustering one shot and one corner in a goalless draw into some form of victory.
“For long periods in the game we thought that could be possible (to win) but we didn’t score and, if you don’t score, you don’t win,” he told PA Sport after his ranks managed just 35 percent possession in Liverpool last Monday – Manchester United’s worse ball share in the Premier League since Opta stats began in 2003.
“But I think it was very positive performance. We stopped them playing, but they also did very well from the defensive point of view.”
The restraint in recent meetings between his new employer and old read like the results of tactical formulas drawn up in Mourinho’s office, with two goals not reached by either side in a United-Chelsea fixture since 2013-14. But that’s no great surprise – Mourinho was present for half of those matches – and he wouldn’t be displeased at a similar soporific outcome this time around.
How will the self-proclaimed “Special One” fare on the other half of Sunday’s Chelsea and Manchester United clash?
Injuries and suspensions
John Terry is fit for consideration after missing the last five matches with a foot complaint. Willian could be ushered straight into the starting XI following a one-match absence due to the death of his mother, while late fitness tests will be handed to Oscar and Mikel John Obi. Cesc Fabregas is out with a quad issue.
There’s no word on when Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Phil Jones will be fit again, but Chris Smalling and Morgan Schneiderlin may be available for United after their respective issues.
Chelsea starting XI: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Willian, Costa, Hazard
Manchester United starting XI: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Pogba; Young, Mata, Martial; Ibrahimovic
What to watch
Mourinho successfully stymied Jurgen Klopp’s front three of Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge, and Sadio Mane, but can he scupper Antonio Conte’s triumvirate of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and, if selected, Willian?
Hazard’s spot on the left flank is an area where Mourinho has a conundrum. There are rumours that the Portuguese is seeking a right-back in the January transfer window, but for now his first choice appears to be Antonio Valencia. Despite proficient performances suggesting otherwise, the Ecuadorian isn’t a natural in that position, and there may be a temptation to field Matteo Darmian, the seldom-used Italian who put in a fine performance against Fenerbahce on Thursday.
Due to his familiarity in that pocket, Darmian may be less inclined to jump into a tackle on Hazard, the most fouled player in the division before the ninth round of fixtures commenced.
Regardless of who’s entrusted in that role, Ashley Young could once again be handed a starting berth. On the right wing, his ability to track back and double up on Hazard could be precious. Jesse Lingard simply wouldn’t offer the same protection.
An increasingly vital part of United’s team is Ander Herrera. The pint-sized, indefatigable Spaniard has simultaneously provided cover in front of the back four and afforded Paul Pogba more freedom to roam. He’ll likely be mindful of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic joining attacks, but his first task will be intercepting service to Diego Costa.
Ahead of this weekend, Costa was joint-second with Bournemouth’s Adam Smith as the league’s most fouled, and is definitely a marked man. Mourinho’s spoil-sport tactics will mean there will be no changes to this trait at Stamford Bridge. He could be subject to some sobering challenges.
Incredibly, given his striking woes of last term and the fact that he regularly looks more consumed by his efforts to wind up opponents, Costa has lofted himself above the likes of Didier Drogba and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as the most prolific Blue in Premier League history:
Where this tie could hinge for United is the No. 10 position. Pogba had a decent Europa League showing there during the working week, but Juan Mata will be hungry to start against his old club – where he was ironically disposed of by Mourinho. Due to the increased energy that’s evident when he’s not around, Wayne Rooney would be a shock inclusion.
It will be a tough challenge for Conte’s back three to handle, and one where – after disappointing losses to Liverpool and Arsenal in September – another bore draw would not satisfy the support in SW6.