Chelsea all set to test United's 'worthy champions' credentials

Posted by Mark Worrall

With the new Premier League season barely a week old, Planet Football is quivering with anticipation at the mouthwatering prospect of watching champions Manchester United go head-to-head with hotly tipped challengers Chelsea. It's far too early to talk of title deciders, but the outcome of the bank holiday Monday showdown at Old Trafford will, from a psychological perspective, set the mood in both camps for the next few weeks.

In the red corner, United come into the game off the back of an eye-catching opening-day 4-1 victory at Swansea. In the blue corner, Chelsea, by virtue of a some-might-say fortuitous midweek triumph over Aston Villa, arrive in Manchester riding the crest of a Jose Mourinho-powered wave.

- Jose Mourinho backs David Moyes
- Lythell: Chelsea searching for expansive approach
- Bennett: Playing for more than points

The Special One may only be three months into the job in his second stint as Blues manager, but he has wasted no time in settling comfortably into the Stamford Bridge hot seat and getting down to business in his own inimitable style. If the Premier League were a high-stakes poker game, Jose Mourinho would already be a sack-load of cash to the good. Forget for one minute the crafty cards being played for Wayne Rooney -- the stealth-like, 11th-hour manner in which Mourinho whipped Brazilian playmaker Willian from under the noses of London archrivals Tottenham Hotspur was a startling reminder of what the Portuguese brings to the table.

Special is as Special does, and that's before considering the impact Mourinho has on his players. To go to Old Trafford and win takes belief as much as it takes ability. Just ask United's new gaffer, David Moyes. In over a decade of trying, teams managed by Moyes never tasted victory at the Theatre of Dreams, and Blues supporters will be hoping this remains the case when match referee Martin Atkinson blows the final whistle on Monday evening.

Thus far the build-up to the game has been notable as much for silence in London as the noise coming out of Manchester. Beyond Mourinho's sabre-rattling broadside that United are not "worthy champions" and the cunning gesture of publically putting his pursuit of Wayne Rooney on hold until the fixture has been completed, there has been barely a murmur from Stamford Bridge. By contrast, United defender Jonny Evans boldly stated: "We will have to wait and see if he [Mourinho] makes a big difference," while Evans' team-mate Rio Ferdinand quipped that beating Liverpool and Manchester City was more satisfying than victories over Chelsea.

In the background, Moyes has complained about the degree of difficulty of the Red Devils' opening run of games, while some United supporters have bemoaned the appointment of supposed Chelsea-loving ref Atkinson to officiate the match. "Nobody will ever forget his [Atkinson's] performance at The Bridge in 2009 where he basically gave every split decision to Chelsea and ultimately cost United the title with his ruling to give them a non-existent free-kick. He allowed their dubious goal to stand whilst denying us two clear penalties," wrote one concerned Red on the comments board of a national newspaper. He backed his argument with a curiously amusing piece of research: "Chelsea's record in league and cup games refereed by Atkinson isn't as good as it once was but it's still pretty extraordinary: P-25 W-20 D-4 L-1 F-54 A-11." Whether the latter is true or false, all these comments point to one thing -- United and their fans are nervous.

The match itself promises to be a gripping encounter, with Chelsea bidding to become the first team to win two Premier League games at Old Trafford in a calendar year. In May, the Blues won a controversial encounter by a narrow 1-0 margin, courtesy of a late, deflected Juan Mata goal. On that day, champions United were reduced to 10 men when David Luiz theatrically contrived a scenario that concluded with referee Howard Webb brandishing a red card at Rafael.

Webb, for many years chastised by Blues fans as a puppet of then-United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, was ironically applauded from the pitch by the away support, and Chelsea supporters travelling to Manchester on Monday will be hoping that referee Atkinson continues his alleged favouritism of the London club.

Going into the match, Moyes must decide whether to deploy want-away striker Rooney against potential new employers. In a game of such high stakes, this would surely represent a wild gamble. Should Moyes play Rooney from the start it will be interesting to hear the reception he gets from the Old Trafford faithful, many of whom have already washed their hands of their former hero.

Mourinho has no such problems -- the only slight question mark over his likely starting XI is a familiar one. Who will lead the line up front? In his Liverpool heyday, Fernando Torres was often the scourge of the United defence, but that was then and this is now. Torres started Chelsea's season opener against Hull City, but failed to make the bench in the next game against Aston Villa. For that match, Mourinho opted for Demba Ba, but to little effect.

Romelu Lukaku was given only a cameo substitute's appearance against Hull, but against Villa he came off the bench with 25 minutes remaining, and Chelsea looked a far more potent threat going forward. The last time he faced United, while on loan at West Brom, Lukaku proved with devastating effect just what he is capable of when becoming the youngest player ever to score a hat-trick against the Red Devils -- remarkably managing the feat having entered the fray as a second-half substitute.

With Monday's encounter likely to be a cagey affair, Mourinho will be well aware of the goal threat posed by Robin van Persie. In a game of few chances, clinical finishing could make a telling difference. Mourinho has the midfield maestros to provide the ammunition; will Lukaku be the man he entrusts to pull the trigger?

Whatever the Special One decides to do, Chelsea's players will take to the pitch focused, fearless and managed by a man who knows his own destiny. In Mourinho, the Blues have the X factor. Can he beat United from the touchline? Let's wait and see. It's going to be an interesting evening.


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