If you had told me (or any Chelsea fan) in, say, February, that come May 8th Chelsea would be facing a do or die game, we'd have assumed that our Champions League place for next season was in some sort of jeopardy. After all, the Blues were something like fifteen points behind Manchester United and in fifth place, engaged in what looked like it was going to be a Battle of Britain-esque dogfight with the nefarious forces of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.
Instead, it's a battle to defend the Premier League crown, with Manchester United our opponents. Win, and Chelsea go to the top of the table on goal differential. Lose, and the Blues are down by six points with two games to go. A draw leaves the club hoping that United will somehow drop points to Blackburn and Blackpool. It really is do or die time, but it's for a race we never had any right to be in. The expression, I believe, is 'playing with house money'.
And somehow that doesn't stop me being absolutely completely and totally terrified of this match. A title decider at Old Trafford? Last year I had to be sedated through the game and only watched a replay several hours afterwards when I stopped twitching. And we won that one. What would have happened had we lost*? I really don't want to do this all over again.
*NB: Didier Drogba was offside, and Federico Macheda's goal was a handball.
It's strange, really. Would I have rather lost at some other point in the season so as to avoid this hope of somehow, ludicrously, winning the title? No, obviously not. But at the same time, the leadup to this match sucks. We have such high hopes, and they'll very likely be crushed, and even before the game I'm imagining them being crushed, and it's all kinds of unfun.
Anyway I guess I should write a preview.
Chelsea take on Manchester United at Old Trafford in a match that will almost certainly decide the title race. Lose, and Chelsea are done. Draw, and Chelsea are probably done. Win, and Chelsea suddenly go top of the table with two games left. Are they going to win? Probably not - the two teams are pretty much a coin flip right now on neutral ground, and the game's in Manchester. Play this game 100 times and you're probably left with fifty draws.
But that doesn't mean Chelsea can't win. Manchester United beat Chelsea home and away in the Champions League quarterfinals (otherwise Chelsea would be the ones getting ready to be mauled by Barcelona at Wembley), but they did so before Chelsea's 4-3-3 rennaisance and without David Luiz in the lineup. Things are a little different right now.
When Chelsea lost in the Champions League, they were a team without a focus or a shape. John Obi Mikel had been exiled for no apparent reason. Fernando Torres was still in the land of sadness. Dider Drogba hadn't shown that he was back from his funk (although signs certainly emerged during the game at Old Trafford). Jose Bosingwa was being used a right back against Nani.
The first point is far and away the more important. Manchester United's favoured 4-4-1-1 shape involves dropping Wayne Rooney back into the midfield and allowing him to act as a playmaker, turning the side into a 4-2-3-1 with three dangerous passes in the centre. Without a player in the zone Rooney likes to move into, Chelsea found themselves outnumbered in the centre, and when your midfielders are Frank Lampard and an out-of-form Michael Essien, that is very bad news.
Mikel may not be able to stop Rooney (when Rooeny is at his best, nobody can), but he'll at the very least provide an answer. This would free up the other midfielders to push forwards and occupy Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, the men expected to start in the centre for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. Carrick in particular likes to drop deep, leaving Lampard the obvious choice to pick him up, and whichever of Michael Essien or Ramires is fit should be able to track Giggs without too much of a problem. There's no reason Chelsea can't dominate the midfield battle, but if they're having problems the answer should probably be to deploy whichever of Ramires and Essien doesn't start and have them harry Carrick into oblivion. Expect Park Ji-Sung to tuck in and assist with the midfield whenever possible.
Up front, Sir Alex Ferguson will go with Javier Hernandez over Dimitar Berbatov, which I think is probably a mistake. David Luiz and John Terry should be able to deal with the Mexican's speed and guile (the pair had no problems with him in the league win at Stamford Bridge), and if Mikel is on Wayne Rooney he won't be able to provide support. Ashley Cole is an obvious pick on the left, but to me at least there's an interesting tactical question over who starts at right back.
I am going to do something insane here and propose that Paulo Ferreira starts. We know that United are comfortable with giving Branislav Ivanovic the ball and watching him overhit cross after cross, and they'll probably design their defence around disregarding the right side in exchange for pinning back Cole on the left. Ferreira, while obviously not the defender Ivanovic is, can threaten going forward in a way the Serbian can't, making him an interesting (if risky) selection here.
This leaves the forwards. Florent Malouda has earned his place on the left, but there's a real case to be made for putting Fernando Torres in the centre and matching Didier Drogba up against Patrice Evra at left back. If Nemanja Vidic has to move to support the left back, so much the better - that's more space for Torres to run into. Drogba's defensive ability is often understated, but he'll be more helpful tracking back than the likes of Salomon Kalou.
That gives us a hoped-for lineup that looks a little like this:
Chelsea (4-3-3): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, David Luiz, Paulo Ferreira; John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Ramires; Florent Malouda, Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba.
Chelsea would be matched up against a United side that I expect to look something like this:
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Edwin van der Sar; Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva; Park Ji-Sung, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia; Wayne Rooney; Javier Hernandez.
I think we can win this one, you know. I don't think we will, but there's some beautiful, vicious hope here.Let's hear your lineups and score predictions.