United go to Stamford Bridge on Sunday in the first game of a tough month of fixtures that will also see us entertain Tottenham at White Hart Lane and see bitter rivals Liverpool come to Old Trafford. It is a season defining period of football as in the later run in of the season, United will have the easier run of games in comparison to City and we need to make sure we put the pressure firmly on the shoulders of blue Manchester. It all starts tomorrow with Chelsea.
Tomorrow, as has become commonplace with the Rentboys over the years, will marred with controversy before a ball has even been kicked. John Terry has been stripped of his England captaincy this week ahead of his trial for racially abusing Rio’s brother but AVB has ruled him out with the same knee injury that kept him out of the Swansea game. Much like De Gea ‘being ill’ on Tuesday, the manager-player protection is obvious here but it means that the spotlight should be solely on the match and for the first time in years, I think United go to Stamford Bridge as favourites in the Premier League.
We haven’t won at the Bridge since Ruud van Nistelrooy gave United the win in 2002 but in the context of tomorrow, United look the far stronger side. A convincing victory against Stoke on Tuesday licked the FA Cup wounds and sitting equal top of the Premier League, we have cemented our place in the title run in despite having our worst injury list in a long time. Sunday will hopefully provide us with some reprieve as five first team players are returning to the squad (De Gea, Rooney, Nani, Cleverley and Young) which gives us a massive boost. We have been struggling with our attacking threat recently in the absence of Rooney – Scholes and Carrick have been dictating the middle of the park but there has been little penetration upfront as we have lacked incisive passing in the final third. The one thing we have had is best winger in the world right now, Pep Guardiola’s words not mine, in Antonio Valencia.
Tony has consistently been our best player for the best part of two months now with his bottomless tank of energy, fizzing crosses and determined runs that have won him such praise with SAF and fans alike. He is maintaining the type of form that is world beating and although Gareth Bale won Player of the Month for January, for me Valencia was as equally deserving of the award. His prominence will be felt even more on Sunday for the fact that Ashley Cole is banned from the game and Chelsea will have to play either Bosingwa or Bertrand against Valencia, giving us a great advantage before the game even kicks off. In terms of other injuries, Chelsea will be without their best midfielder (in my opinion) in Ramires and Lampard may well miss the game with his calf injury, so Chelsea will be a far from full strength side. This will give United a chance of dominating the midfield but with Scholes playing a full 90 minutes against Stoke, a starting berth of Carrick and Giggs seems the most likely option – but it still gives us two accomplished passers of the ball, so we should see a lot of possession. I hope that Cleverley will get some minutes tomorrow though because I strongly believe our best midfield partnership has yet to be seen in Carrick and Cleverley, whose games compliment each other perfectly on paper. Expect Chelsea to be firing in as many shots as possible as a likely return in goal of David De Gea will most likely be singled out by AVB as our weakness and the Spaniard really needs to have a run of good games under his belt if he is to start building the confidence he needs to compliment the areas of his game that are lacking. A goalkeeper without confidence may as well not be a goal keeper at all. Although, to be honest, even a full strength Chelsea this season has been poor – two wins in the last five including only one win in three at home brings Chelsea into this fixture in mid-table form, so the fear factor when coming to the Bridge has dilapidated ahead of this game.
The only thing that United have been lacking is a predator up front that can get on the end of Valencia’s crosses – it is aggravating me that nobody is making enough runs to the front post because more often than not, they will be able to get a touch to send it goal wards. The return of Rooney to the starting line-up tomorrow should bring some much needed creativity and take the pressure away from Valencia to create the chances and bring United a threat through the middle. For me, Hernandez has to start – with Gary Cahill playing tomorrow, Hernandez should be able to dart in front of him and make space for himself much like he did at the Reebok earlier in the season in the 5-0 win. It will be most likely that SAF will stick to Welbeck alongside Rooney, if he returns to the starting XI, as it has been the most prolific combination for United this season but I want to see our Mexican magician getting the game time that his debut season warranted.
The game tomorrow will be a tense affair because Chelsea will not back down and let United steam roll over them but the momentum is firmly with us and it is our game to lose. The pressure is mounting on a wavering debut season for AVB and he will not want to let United do the double over him in his first campaign but with the game at hand, the onus is on us to swipe the win and break the curse of the Bridge. Prediction? United will be the tempo creators of the game and a lot of it will be played through Valencia, much like the game at the Emirates was played through Nani as SAF targeted Djourou out as the weakness, and I think it will provide great dividends for us. I think United will come away victors and i’ll put my money on it being a 2-0/3-1 final scoreline. You heard it here first.