History casts shadow over Chelsea vs. United match

Posted by Mark Payne

On Jan. 18, 1964, Manchester United started the day sixth in the league table and facing a tricky away fixture that would determine the tone of their new year. The fixture was notable for being the first time that the "United Holy Trinity" of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best took the field together. Fifty years later and the current team are in a similar predicament; they will hope to invoke the spirit of the greats as they take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this Sunday.

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West Bromich Albion were the opponents that day and were swept aside 4-1 as the visitors made their mark. Best opened the scoring before Charlton added United's second. Law netted the next two and those in attendance knew they had just witnessed something special. The club managed to put a slow start behind them and finish the season second to Bill Shankly's Liverpool.

This weekend the challenge is immense. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are, without question, United's two best players and both are injured. Any team in the world would miss them, but United have struggled at the best of times this season and now face Jose Mourinho's relentless Chelsea machine.

United boss David Moyes has attracted criticism for anything and everything of late. If he ties his shoelace he isn't doing it as well as former manager Sir Alex Ferguson might have done, as far as the world is concerned. However, the suggestion that his tactics are often conservative might have substance.

United are shorn of their two most potent match-winners and there is more than a lingering suspicion that they might not set out to win the match. Moyes has conceded that he might not even play with a striker.

"We could. When you are a manager your job is to find ways to win the games and I think that is what Jose has done over the years." Indeed, a perceived conservatism is reportedly one of the reasons Mourinho was not offered the Old Trafford role upon Ferguson's retirement.

"He has played in different ways to win games," added Moyes. "Maybe it would have been reported differently if I had done it." This is a fair point, but Mourinho has been much better at deflecting criticism than Moyes has. In truth, Chelsea have been woeful often this season. The difference is that they have still accumulated lots of points.

Nonetheless, Manchester United are Manchester United and they must set out to win the game at all costs. Stodgy nil-nils are not the business of England's pre-eminent sporting institution. That won't be changing because of a couple of injuries.

"It's a chance to set up a really good 10 days. We have had a win against Swansea and we have a cup tie on Wednesday," Moyes said. This is indeed the case and if United win their next two games the garden will be rosy once more. Those on the terraces know that the landscaping will take longer though.

If any comparison could be made with United's current batch and the understanding developed by the Trinity it would be seen in the interplay of Adnan Januzaj and Danny Welbeck. The two youngsters have been a breath of fresh air this season and have combined to score several goals over the past two months.

While it might seem unreasonable to heap so much pressure on an 18-year-old such as Januzaj, it pays to remember that Best was only 17 during that match against West Brom all those years ago.

He spent a lot of that year in the youth team as well and Sir Matt Busby, the manager of the time, is reported to have encouraged tougher than usual training sessions when Best was involved. This worked on the theory that George would be ready for the real thing when he hit the field in league matches. It obviously worked. The following year, in his first full season, United won the league.

Chelsea might enjoy a psychological edge with Mourinho in the dugout this weekend, but their players are no better than United's. Even without their leading lights, Manchester United have enough danger in their team to snatch victory from the Londoners.

Mourinho has never lost a home game as Chelsea manager. If Moyes can mastermind his defeat this weekend, then it is something people will be talking about for the next 50 years. He might be able to tie his shoelaces in peace again, too.

Mark Payne is the author of "Fergie's Last Stand," now available in paperback.

Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.

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