Chelsea need to maintain love affair with Old Trafford

Posted by Phil Lythell

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesUnlike many teams in the Prem, Chelsea are undaunted when they visit Old Trafford.

Whenever Chelsea and Manchester United have met in the Premier League era it has been a huge fixture. Before the Roman Abramovich reign began and even prior to the days of Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea were always a thorn in United's side, famously winning both league games against them in the 1993-94 season while Sir Alex Ferguson's side were marching towards the first domestic double of the manager's tenure -- a feat secured by beating the Blues in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

In the two decades that have passed since then, the two sides have gone toe-to-toe in the title race on a number of occasions as well as contesting finals in both the FA Cup and Champions League -- each side having their moments in the sun. Their next meeting on Sunday might not have quite the profile of those previous clashes, though it still carries huge significance at least as far as Chelsea are concerned.

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United's race is already run with the Premier League crown reclaimed, but with the points record for the Premier League -- currently held by Jose Mourinho's 2004-05 Chelsea side -- just out of reach, there is little except professional pride for them to play for. Chelsea, however, are entering the final throes of what has been a topsy-turvy campaign of epic proportions with each and every game dripping with significance.

With their place in the Europa League final assured, attention turns back to the quest for Champions League football with the Blues desperate to keep a firm grip on a top four place, something that Chelsea can all but guarantee if they win their next two matches. Should the reigning European champions match Tottenham's result this weekend, they can effectively put themselves out of Spurs' reach by beating them at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. That scenario would see Andre Villas-Boas' team sit six points behind with two games remaining though with such an inferior goal difference that all realistic hope of them catching Chelsea would be extinguished.

It all sounds simple on paper; unfortunately it probably means that Chelsea will have to beat the Premier League champions and the team boasting the universally-accepted player of the year in Gareth Bale in successive games. Both results are possible, but Chelsea will have to be on top form to execute their game plan.

The task is tough though there is reason to believe. Chelsea have an enviable record at Old Trafford -- even winning their maiden FA Cup in a replay at that ground -- so there will be no sense of anyone being overawed. The team has already played there once this season in the FA Cup when they came from behind only to be desperately unlucky not to win the match after dominating the second half. In fact, the clubs have met four times this season in three different competitions and on each occasion the Blues have acquitted themselves admirably, scoring 10 goals in the process.

What the Blues will have to guard against is ceding the momentum to United at the start of the game. In three of those games, United have opened the scoring in the early exchanges and twice racing into a two-goal lead. Chelsea have responded on each occasion, though it is not a habit that it is healthy to perpetuate. One of Chelsea's key problems this season has been the slow starts made in matches under Rafa Benitez, though a positive has been the ostensible improvement in performance during the second half, a trait once again in evidence in Thursday night's win over Basel.

With so much at stake Benitez cannot afford for his team to be slow out of the blocks at Old Trafford and they will need to take the game to their illustrious opponents. The main components, as ever, will be Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. The two of them have combined to torment United at times this season, not least in the first FA Cup meeting. Ferguson has yet to come up with an effective way of combating the threat from the twinkle-toed duo, and if they are on song once again, they can provide the platform for a positive result.

At the other end, Chelsea will need to make sure they are well guarded on the flanks. The Red Devils have had much joy against them this season when exploiting the space left behind the fullbacks. In October the Blues had bossed possession in the opening quarter of an hour yet found themselves 2-0 down due to the swift and intelligent use of the ball by United when the ball was turned over and the fullbacks were caught upfield. Benitez will be aware of that threat and it is expected that he will employ similar tactics to those employed away in Basel where Ashley Cole barely crossed the halfway line in order to nullify the dangerous pace of Mohamed Salah.

It promises to be another dynamic chess match, the type of which has characterised this fixture over the years. Even though the hosts might not be in need of the points, the professionalism and will to win inspired by their manager will ensure that they supply a stern examination. It is one that Chelsea can overcome but they will have to be at the top of their game to do it.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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