The last time Manchester United came to Stamford Bridge in league play, it kicked off the rebirth of Chelsea's 2010/11 season. David Luiz and Frank Lampard both found the net in a huge 2-1 win that sparked a rally by the rejuvenated Blues. Ultimately, the charge would fall short, with Carlo Ancelotti's side falling short against United in the Champions League before finishing as runners up in the league, but it was still a vital moment in restoring belief and pride in a flagging squad.
We're in a fairly similar position now. Depressingly, Chelsea are battling it out not for the title but for a top four place. The Manchester squad looks out of reach and it would at this point take a major push just to catch Tottenham Hotspur. A win here would lay down a big marker, but dropping points would put the club in even graver peril of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League.
We've already lost to this team once, back when we were looked at as realistic title contenders. The 3-1 reverse at Old Trafford, which featured the famous Fernando Torres miss, was actually the first league loss Andre Villas-Boas had suffered in more than a year. That seems ludicrous now, of course, but everyone was still pretty confident after the display in Manchester. The Blues had played well (although defended poorly) and if things had gone slightly differently they could easily have been the team that won.
Of course, that's been the story of quite a lot of games this season, so we're perhaps less forgiving of intrepid but ultimately fruitless displays - a brave, quality performance counts for very little compared to three points right now. Unfortunately, we're not really in a position where we're set up to play very well. Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are off winning matches (jealous!) at the Africa Cup of Nations. John Terry, Ramires and John Obi Mikel are all confirmed out with injuries. Frank Lampard may or may not be fit to start, and although Michael Essien has returned we don't know how fit he is either. Oh, and left back Ashley Cole is suspended after being sent off against Swansea in the 1-1 midweek draw.
Who does that leave us with? Not a lot, especially in midfield. I'm going to assume Essien's capable of starting, because otherwise I'll start drinking well before is considered appropriate on a Saturday afternoon. If Lampard can't play, Chelsea have three midfielders (Florent Malouda doesn't count, no matter what Villas-Boas might think), and so we have Raul Meireles, Oriol Romeu and Michael Essien all as probable starters.
There has been some suggestion that Chelsea should move to a 4-2-3-1 for this match. The Blues fielded it with some success against United at Old Trafford (they switched in the second half and were immediately rewarded with a Torres goal). The most obvious benefit to such a shape would be that Juan Mata gets to sit in the hole behind the centre forward and is released from his responsibility to mind the fullbacks. It also, as we saw against Swansea, relieves some of the pressure on Chelsea's midfielders - the pivot sits deep and thus can dictate the play without being pressed to death.
There are also some drawbacks. The most obvious is that the only left winger that's really available to the Blues at this point is Florent Malouda, and after a dire display at the Liberty Stadium it might be wise to ignore it entirely. The other is a mirror of the benefit - having two midfielders sitting deep will relieve the pressure on United's midfield and allow them the time and space to start spraying balls to the flanks, something that's incredibly dangerous with the ability of their wingers.
Ultimately, it might be best to proceed with the 4-3-3 for now (unless Essien can't start, in which case Malouda's inclusion necessitates 4-2-3-1). Romeu can pick up Wayne Rooney, and Meireles and Essien can harass whoever Sir Alex Ferguson fields in central midfield. Our United counterparts at the Busby Babe have United as a follows:
Manchester United starting lineup (4-4-1-1): David de Gea; Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling; Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia; Wayne Rooney; Danny Welbeck.
To which I would respond...
Three of the four most obvious individual battles are wingers vs. fullbacks. Antonio Valencia vs. any left back at Chelsea (including Cole, if he were healthy) is a disaster waiting to happen - the Ecuadorian has been unplayable for the last month or so. We're going to get hit hard there, so it makes sense to get Gary Cahill on the pitch to help cut out crosses, one of the areas the new signing excels.
Fortunately, United's fullbacks don't match up very well against Juan Mata or Danny Sturridge. Sturridge should be able to torch Patrice Evra, especially if the Frenchman advances too high up the pitch to support Park on the attack, and you'd have to be pretty confident about Sturridge being able to deal with Ferdinand as well. Mata, meanwhile, should be able to hang back away from the more defensively inclined Smalling and either exploit the space or draw another United player out of position.
The last battle is Oriol Romeu vs. Wayne Rooney, and that's almost entirely dependent on how well Rooney feels like playing. That one could end up going very badly.
The match is scheduled for 4:00PM GMT (11:00AM EST) on Sunday, but there's some threat of it being cancelled due to heavy (for England) snow. Hopefully* it ends up being played, and we'll see you all tomorrow for the game thread.