In the second of two heavyweight FA Cup clashes this weekend, Chelsea and Manchester United lock horns for the fourth time this season.
Victory will send either team through to a coveted FA Cup final against either Manchester City or Arsenal.
Frank Lampard’s Blues are still searching for the first victory over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Red Devils, having lost the most recent encounter in acrimonious circumstances.
Tomorrow would be a good time to arrest this slump, especially at the beginning of a pivotal week for both clubs, which will spell out their respective Champions League destinies.
Manchester United: The FA Cup Story So Far and Team News
Manchester United have been the form team in the Premier League since Project Restart, aided by a kinder fixture list and schedule (despite Solskjaer’s claims to the contary), a lack of injuries to key players at critical times and a healthy slice of luck thanks to errant refereeing decisions and Video Assistant Referee interventions.
Nonetheless, they currently hold the edge over Chelsea with an aggregate score of 9-1 across the three encounters, albeit having benefitted from several Chelsea goals being chalked off during those matches, and a couple of controversial free kick and penalty decisions. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows that an FA Cup triumph and strong end to the season domestically will silence any remaining critics who claim he is out of his depth.
In terms of the FA Cup, the fixture list once again has smiled kindly on United, who have were nearly knocked out in January by Wolves in a nervy 0-0 at Molineux, before scraping a tense 1-0 victory in the replay at Old Trafford thanks to ex-Blue Juan Mata. They walloped a hapless Tranmere Rovers – who were later relegated from League One – with six different goalscorers, before seeing off Lampard’s former side Derby County in the Last 16 with a professional 0-3 victory including a brace from January loan signing Odion Ighalo.
Most recently, they stumbled to a 1-2 win after extra-time against now-relegated Norwich City, making hard work of the task before a late goal from captain Harry Maguire finally killed off the Canaries.
It’s hard to predict exactly what team Solskjaer will choose to use, with crucial matches against West Ham and a final day Old Trafford showdown with Leicester City also on the cards. It seems sensible to suggest that cup goalkeeper Sergio Romero – arguably United’s Man of the Match against Norwich in the previous round – will retain his place, whilst the back four picks itself: Aaron Wan Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Brandon Williams, who deputises for the injured Luke Shaw. You would expect United to stick with their strongest pivot – Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, although it is possible one of Fred or Scott McTominay may deputise for the Frenchman who was poor against Southampton and Crystal Palace.
Bruno Fernandes is likely to start in his preferred No. 10 role as he has become undroppable, whilst Dan James will play on the wing and look to cause more havoc against Chelsea. On the other side, you’d expect Marcus Rashford to get the nod, but it is possible that the Norwegian may plump for Jesse Lingard given his record in the FA Cup, and the need for freshness. Up top, Odion Ighalo has tended to lead the line effectively in England’s oldest cup competition, so expect the Nigerian to start again.
Chelsea FC: The FA Cup Story So Far and Team News
Chelsea in Project Restart have been comfortingly familiar to Chelsea throughout all of Frank Lampard’s first season in charge of the Blues. When they are good, they are brilliant and capable of blowing even the best defences away with their quality and interplay. However, when they are struggling, they labour and toil against some of the worst teams in the Premier League, dominating possession but unable to ever lay a glove on their opponent. Lampard has criticised his team for a lack of bite and cutting edge numerous times this season and the nervy 1-0 victory over Norwich City midweek was atypical of this. Chelsea had numerous chances to kill the game and failed to do so, meaning fans could not relax until the relief of the final whistle.
That said, if you had been offered the guarantee of Champions League football still being in our hands with two games to go, and an FA Cup Semi-Final, back in August after United had just beaten us 4-0 at Old Trafford, 99% of us would have bitten the proverbial hand off. Whatever happens in this final week, there is no denying that Lampard’s first season has defied the doubters who expected Chelsea to be scrapping the mid-table, ironically in the same position Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur now find themselves in.
Lampard’s debut FA Cup at SW6 hasn’t been as easy. A tough draw against Championship Playoff hopefuls Nottingham Forest was navigated with a confident and clinical 2-0 victory, before Chelsea laboured a 2-1 victory away at the KCOM Stadium against a vociferous Hull City who benefitted from kind refereeing and goalkeeper George Long putting in an inspired performance to repel the rampant Blues in the first half.
The Last 16 provided the real acid test as Chelsea ended Liverpool’s hopes of claiming a Treble by dispatching them 2-0 at Stamford Bridge, on a night where young Billy Gilmour had the Liverpool midfield dancing to his tune; goals from Willian and a superb solo effort from ex-Evertonian Ross Barkley sealing the win.
The Quarter Final threw up another tough test as Chelsea faced Leicester City at the King Power stadium. The Foxes have spent most of the campaign above Chelsea and they dominated the early proceedings, but an inspired set of second half substitutions tipped the balance for the London Blues as Barkley once again steered home a decisive goal. If Chelsea get through to the Final, they could potentially face all four rivals for a Champions League spot – or alternatively have to navigate another London derby final – making it a strong contender for one of the toughest FA Cup runs ever.
I expect Chelsea will rotate as they too will have one eye on the midweek clash against already-crowned Champions Liverpool. Predicting the goalkeeping situation is tough; Kepa played in the victory over the Merseyside club, but Willy Caballero returned for the Leicester match and I think he will keep his place. In order to combat United, I can see Lampard deploying a 3-4-3 with Azpilicueta, Christensen and Tomori in the central defence, and James and Alonso at wing-back. This also eliminates certain questions about the pivot, which I think will be Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic.
For the front three, I’m expecting Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount to get the nod in the wide roles, whilst Olivier Giroud might well continue up-front considering his recent good form. However, it is possible the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi could also stake a claim for a starting spot on the wing.
A decisive week in Chelsea’s history begins with a very tough FA Cup Semi-Final. Lampard will be as fired up as anyone as he bids to try and take Chelsea back to Wembley in a couple of weeks time, and the potential of a first piece of silverware will make this extra important for the young manager.
However, Manchester United have started to find their form at the business end of the season and seem to get results, by hook or (VAR) crook. It’s hard to predict what the outcome will be, especially with Mike Dean refereeing – he’ll be determined to ensure he becomes the main attraction – but it certainly won’t be an easy game for either side.
Written and edited by Rob Pratley