Chelsea can exploit vulnerable Man United

Posted by Phil Lythell

AP Photo Roberto Di Matteo will have to get his Chelsea team to bounce back from defeat against Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United

An oft-used football truism quoted these days is that it's not the defeat but how you react to it that really matters. That maxim is not always completely accurate -- after all, what does the next game matter if you've just lost a Champions League or World Cup final? -- but the essence of the point carries weight.

That very challenge has been posed to Chelsea after an uncharacteristically poor showing against Shakhtar Donetsk saw the team humbled in the Ukraine, even if the 2-1 scoreline fallaciously did suggest a tight affair. The Blues were second best for pretty much the entire contest and will be grateful to have returned to London bearing only superficial scars, especially given that Juventus could only manage a draw against lowly Nordsjaelland. It was the first time Roberto Di Matteo's team had been defeated in a meaningful competitive game this season, and it will be interesting to see how this new experience impacts the players.

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Di Matteo could not have a bigger match in which to prove that the loss was a blip rather than a sign of something more endemic than facing Manchester United, the team that was seconds away from being named champions of England for a 20th time last May. There should be no need for the Italian to have to motivate his players for the clash given the magnitude of the occasion, though there may be a need to massage some egos so that they replicate their performance at White Hart Lane rather than the Donbass Arena. For the first time there is a degree of pressure on the manager and his charges even though Chelsea will still sit on top of the Premier League after the weekend regardless of the result.

Under both Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti, the club got off to flying starts in the league only to see momentum checked and a slide down the table ensue. Both managers paid for the decline with their jobs. Total faith is retained in the coaching staff from this particular writer but history tells us never to assume anything, especially when Roman Abramovich is sitting in judgement. A restoration of the quick passing and silky movement is needed, but equally a more cohesive defensive shape -- most notably in central midfield -- will need to be drilled into the players to help eradicate the errors from Tuesday night. Those capabilities are certainly present within the squad, but it will be Di Matteo's ability to extract them that will dictate the final score.

Manchester United also find themselves enveloped in one of the game's favourite pieces of wisdom that declares winning becomes a habit. The Red Devils have won ten and lost just two of their 12 matches in all competitions so far this season with not a stalemate in sight, a run that backs up those wise words. But while the table doesn't lie -- another cherished football cliché -- sometimes statistics can be deceptive. In several of those matches Sir Alex Ferguson's men have struggled and they found themselves trailing in the victories over Fulham, Southampton, Liverpool, Cluj, Stoke and Braga. Of course there is much to be made of the resolve and character of a side that is able to overcome adversity with such regularity, but it must also be an exhausting endeavour, always having to dig yourselves out of a hole. That state of affairs is not sustainable, and Chelsea can exploit that on Sunday.

On the face of it one might think that it is the visitors who go into the fixture with a greater spring in their step, but is there much confidence to be taken from struggling past a Champions League qualifier at the so-called Theatre of Dreams? Clearly a win is better than a defeat, but Chelsea's loss against an excellent Shakhtar Donetsk side was a timely reminder that a drop in standards will be mercilessly punished. Pride will have been pricked and words exchanged in the aftermath of such a match, especially as everything had been roses beforehand, and such lessons can prove invaluable provided that the players are imbued with a determination to win. The talent is definitely there and the comeback win over Tottenham suggested that the right mentality exists also.

Sunday will test Chelsea's mettle. Are they contenders or are they destined to be exposed as style over substance? I am very confident that on Monday we will be extolling the virtues of this new young Chelsea side, but nothing is ever certain when facing Manchester United. If any manager can dig out the right result it is Ferguson, though at some stage this season his luck has to run out.

A drain on that particular resource starting at 4pm on Sunday would be perfect.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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