When Jose Mourinho was officially announced as Manchester United’s new manager in May, one of the first things Chelsea fans wanted to know was when the ‘Special One’ would make his highly-anticipated return to Stamford Bridge.
After all, Mourinho is regarded as one of Chelsea’s greatest, if not their greatest, ever manager despite the Portuguese seeing his second spell in charge of the west London side come to an unexpected end last December.
With Mourinho moving on with Chelsea’s Premier League rivals United and Antonio Conte doing a good job of picking up the pieces at Stamford Bridge, the clash between the Blues and the Red Devils this weekend will certainly be an intriguing affair.
Not only will it mark Mourinho’s first game back at Chelsea since leaving 10 months ago, but it will also give both clubs the chance to move into the top four.
After a wobble in September, Conte and Mourinho both appear to have discovered their best lineups and formations in the last few weeks. Neither manager will want to risk losing momentum with a defeat, so we could be in for a very cagey game of football at Stamford Bridge.
The improvement from Chelsea in the last two matches has been astounding. Where they looked so soft against Arsenal they’ve discovered an edge both at the back and going forward. They were superb in the predicted win against Leicester.
There are plenty of reasons for this, but the first that comes to mind is the midfield. Matic and Kanté is as tough a partnership as it gets, and everything about the pairing seems to work.
It puts Kanté in a midfield two, which was the setup that got the best out of him at Leicester. But it has also reawakened a creative flair in Matic that first came to the fore during his time at Benfica.
So in a crude way you could draw comparisons between Chelsea’s midfield this season and Leicester’s last year, if you see Matic as an equivalent to Drinkwater.
Yet, while Chelsea are playing exciting football and appear to be on the right track again, Blues fans will be wary as they’ve failed their two major tests this season. We can’t forget that they were looking good before the defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal and with this in mind Conte may try to play it safe against United. This match may be one for the tactically-minded fans to admire.
There’s nothing pretty about it, but you can bet that Mourinho’s style of football will eke out results from difficult fixtures. Before Monday, Liverpool had been rampant, thrashing all the big sides, and we expected them to take care of a stuttering United.
But the Red Devils, playing with a highly-defensive 6-3-1, kept chances to a minimum, and de Gea was alert enough to claw away anything that fell to Liverpool in the area.
Chelsea haven’t been as strong as Liverpool this season, having slipped up against the Reds and been thrashed by Arsenal. So now Mourinho has a decision to make.
Does he gamble on a win against his former club and send his midfielders over the halfway line, or aim for a repeat performance and hope to snatch a draw?
Chelsea have made an uncertain start to the season. And Mourinho, who studies opponents to find their weaknesses as much as any manager, will see things he can take advantage of. He will also know all about his former players, and is cunning enough to build a game plan around Chelsea’s shortfalls. David Luiz in particular is someone Mourinho didn’t rate, and the Portuguese coach may single out the defender for special attention.
However Mourinho configures his side, one man who can change a game in an instant is Paul Pogba. For some reason the Frenchman has attracted criticism for his performances this season, but United are definitely better with him in the side.The problem with spending a record fee on a deep midfielder is that people expect goals from a position in which few players are regular scorers. And the players who do score need to be in a very specific setup. It will take time for United to get this right.
If United’s approach to the Liverpool match is now their template for big away matches this season, then this fixture could be a bit drab. Conte favours a more enterprising style of football than Mourinho, but is also very tactically adept and won’t take risks he thinks are unnecessary. So we’ll probably see the two teams cancelling each other out.
Two days before being sacked in December a doomed Mourinho spoke of a “betrayal” of his work by some of the players who had propelled Chelsea to the Premier League title the previous season.
Fingers were pointed at Diego Costa, among others, and the Spanish striker’s huge dip in form was a contributing factor to the Portuguese tactician’s bitter exit.
Costa has started this season like the marauding forward Mourinho signed from Atletico Madrid, scoring seven goals in eight Premier League games, and he will be relishing the highly-charged atmosphere expected on Sunday.
The visit to Stamford Bridge could hardly have come at a worse time for a United side who have won only one of their last five Premier League games to stall what had been a promising beginning to the Mourinho reign.
United played Turkish club Fenerbahce in the Europa League on Thursday before they can fully focus on the visit to west London. No wonder Mourinho, whose side are seventh in the table, said it was a time for digging in.
“This is not the week where we were expecting to close the distances to the top of the league. This is the week we have to keep contact with them. Then we will arrive at the moment where we win three, four or five matches in a row and we will be there fighting with almost everybody for the title,” he told the club’s website (www.manutd.com).
It is not the first time Mourinho, who won two Premier League titles for Chelsea before his first sacking in 2007, will sit in the away dugout at Stamford Bridge. He masterminded a 1-0 win for Inter Milan over Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea in 2010 on the way to winning the Champions League.