Chelsea take on Manchester United in one of the most anticipated fixtures in the Premier League calendar on Sunday. There are many sub-plots to this enthralling contest, with José Mourinho returning to Stamford Bridge for the first time since his sacking by the Blues in December.
Battles between Chelsea and United are always fractious in some way or the other. There are individuals on both sides of the pitch who could flare up a controversy, and Sunday could be no different. On the other hand, the quality on show is also just as immense.
In a game that is almost too difficult to predict, here are 3 key individual battles that could turn the tide:
1) Diego Costa (Chelsea) vs Eric Bailly (Manchester United)
The most in-form striker in the league at the moment is Chelsea’s Diego Costa. The Spaniard has 7 goals to his name, and escaped his 5th yellow card of the season last week to be eligible on Sunday. He has a tendency to bring his ruthless and battling best in big games, and the man expected to deal with him will be Eric Bailly.
The Ivorian has been solid as a rock since his big-money move from Villarreal in the summer. Costa is going to be more than a handful though, and it may not all be on the ball. The Chelsea man will take every opportunity to hustle, harry, and harass his opposition centre-halves, and Bailly must see that he doesn’t get perturbed. Keeping Costa quiet will be key for United to shutting Chelsea out, and if the striker is able to gain a psychological upper-hand, that will be even tougher to accomplish.
2) N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) vs Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Since Chelsea is playing with 3 defenders, they have to give up one man in central midfield. Usually, that would be a big problem, but with N’Golo Kante around, it’s not so much of an issue. The Frenchman has been a revelation since signing from Leicester City in the summer, and has been omnipresent on the pitch. He will need to be at his combative best once again on Sunday against his counterpart Paul Pogba.
United’s record signing has had his ups and downs since joining in the summer. Last week, he played in an advanced number 10 role against Liverpool, and failed to live up to his expectations. In midweek against Fenerbahce, he dropped back to a deeper role, and scored twice. Against Chelsea, it is expected that he will continue in the latter position.
The two Frenchmen will collide on more than one occasion, and will determine who’s side has more control in a game that is expected to be very disciplined and cagey.
3) David Luiz (Chelsea) vs Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
The ever-entertaining, ever-controversial duo of David Luiz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be loggerheads on Sunday, after being teammates at Paris Saint-Germain in the past two seasons.
Luiz is always prone to rushing out too soon and leaving Chelsea open at the back. Ibrahimovic, on the other hand, will be marshalled by 3 men at the back. This may not be a one-on-one duel per say, but these individuals are very likely to do something that would turn the tide. The Chelsea defender can be extremely effective on his day, while the United forward is never too far away from doing something outrageously spectacular.
Honorable mention: Antonio Conte (Chelsea) vs Jose Mourinho (Manchester United)
Emotions aside, Mourinho will be approaching this game in a very astute manner. There is a very good chance that he sets up not to lose, like he did at Anfield last week. The onus will be on Antonio Conte and Chelsea to force the issue, while also being wary of United on the counter attack.
The game will be highly tactical, and both managers will want their personnel to be exactly in the right positions at all times. In the end, the winning gaffer may very well be the man-of-the-match.