It’s quite a rare occurrence, especially in the context of the modern, politically correct Premier League, that a game between 2nd and 4th in the table is being keenly anticipated for an off-the-field rivalry as opposed to its promise as an actual game of football.
But with Manchester United in the middle of a tepid run of uninspiring results, and Chelsea struggling to recreate the form that saw them run away with the title last season, the fires have instead been stoked in the media rooms, with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte engaging in a petty and seemingly never-ending war of words in the build up to Sunday’s game.
Cast your minds all the way back to October 2016, and their first Premier League meeting. Upon his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s United were demolished 4-0 – with the fiery Conte celebrating even the last goal as if it was a World Cup final. Mourinho took umbrage with what he saw as Conte trying to “humiliate” him, and things have only gone downhill from there.
Mourinho labelled Chelsea a “defensive team” in February 2017, and the following month, after again being bested by Conte in an FA Cup tie at the Bridge, claimed he “will always be number one” at Chelsea due to his trophy-laden spells at the club.
Conte retorted in the summer, telling press he wanted to “avoid a Mourinho season”, referencing Jose’s dismal title defence during his second spell down King’s Road. Then, again, the two clashed in the press in October after Mourinho seemingly referenced Conte “crying about injuries”.
The pair were remarkably well behaved in the lead up and aftermath to Chelsea’s deserved 1-0 victory over United in November, though, and it was seemingly safe to assume that the pair had buried the hatchet and moved past it. That was, until January.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Mourinho took a thinly-veiled dig at Conte for “behaving like a clown on the touchline”, and then even more strikingly, told press “I will never be suspended for match-fixing”, which was assumed to be a direct reference to Conte’s four-month ban served during his time as Juventus manager, for failing to report match-fixing at Siena, a previous club.
Conte hit back by calling Jose “a little man”, and insisting he “will not forget these comments”.
All very petty, but all of the insults and dirty laundry being aired over the past few months has no doubt added greatly to the drama of the occasion, which for me, cannot be seen as a bad thing.
On the field
But despite the mind games, football matches are ultimately always decided by the players on the field.
Both United and Chelsea are coming off midweek Champions League draws, 0-0 in Seville for United and a spirited 1-1 at home to Barcelona for the Blues.
There was plenty of discussion, as there usually is in today’s media, about Paul Pogba on Wednesday, after Mourinho chose to leave out his record signing in favour of academy prospect Scott McTominay – only to be forced into reinstating the Frenchman after just 17 minutes due to Ander Herrera’s injury.
Pogba was solid if entirely unspectacular (much like the entire United team bar David De Gea) in his 75 minutes, but the situation itself has created fresh concerns at Old Trafford – there is a certain awkwardness and distrust created when a manager drops a high-profile player for a big game, only to have to call on him minutes later.
But with Herrera now on the casualties list, Pogba is almost certain to start on Sunday, most likely as part of a midfield three with McTominay and ex-Chelsea man Nemanja Matic. United will line up with Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and one of Mourinho’s revolving cast of right-wingers up top – likely Marcus Rashford.
At the back, it’ll be up to a less than convincing backline of Valencia, Smalling, Lindelof and Young to try and offer more protection to their goalkeeper than was given in Seville.
For Chelsea, despite regret over gifting Barcelona such a vital away goal on Tuesday, they are likely to head north full of confidence after going head-to-head with the best team on the planet and making a real game of it. Willian, who looked immense in striking Barcelona’s woodwork twice before curling home a lovely effort to open the scoring, should retain his place as part of Chelsea’s attacking trio.
Eden Hazard led the line against Barca, but complained of a lack of touches in the central role, saying “You don’t get a lot of balls. I might have touched 25 balls that night, and 15 were flying towards my head. That’s not really playing to my qualities.”
The Belgian’s clear desire to return to the left-wing, plus the return to fitness of Alvaro Morata, will likely see Hazard’s wishes fulfilled against United, with Morata set to return to the lineup against the team he thought he was joining last summer.
Danny Drinkwater may get a look-in alongside N’Golo Kante, who against Barcelona returned to the destructive form that has been somewhat lacking at times this season, and Andreas Christensen will be looking to bounce back strongly after his errant pass gifted the all-important away goal to Lionel Messi on Tuesday.
Let’s be honest – neither side will be harbouring dreams of anything more than second place in the league this season.
Manchester City have been too good, and got too far ahead to be threatened by anybody at this stage. It did seem at one point that United were nailed on to follow their local rivals home to a comfortable second place, but their sputtering start to 2018 has left them just two points clear of Liverpool behind them – and only three ahead of Chelsea.
It’s a game that could have huge ramifications on the Champions League places, one that neither can comfortably afford to lose.
Given that, and the amount of pride on the line between two coaches that clearly resent each other, and we are looking at what will surely be a tight and nervy game. It pains me to say it, but when you factor in the presence of the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League, all roads lead to a 0-0 for me.
As someone who’s paying a premium to attend on Sunday, I really hope I’m wrong.