14:05 GMT, Sunday 25th February, Old Trafford (Manchester, England) Sky Sports
With both managers quick to throw cold water over their ongoing spat, the simmering tension between these managers has been firmly placed on the back-burner ahead of this top-four encounter.
Both sides have similar form coming into this match having won 33 and 34 points respectively since last November and both achieving a defensive-based draw against Spanish opposition in their mid-week Champions League encounters.
It is United and former Chelsea manager José Mourinho who have the advantage of being higher in the table although two defeats in their previous three league games have seen this lead slashed back to three points. Antonio Conte has also won three of his four previous encounters with Mourinho, however United are now unbeaten at Old Trafford in 29 of their last 30 Premier League matches and Mourinho will be keen to extend that against his former club.
Last Time Out
Sevilla 0-0 Manchester United (Champions League)
United had David de Gea to thank for maintaining their chances in this competition after another wonder-save from the Spaniard proved United’s only highlight from a drab display. Mourinho’s ultra-defensive gameplan paid respect to the quality of a Sevilla side who are ranked as the seventh-best side in Europe, however, this approach sucked any potential excitement out of the match.
This tactic did not fail United who restricted the home team to only one clear chance throughout the match. Luis Muriel's header point-blank header should have found the net but for the lightning reflexes of the United keeper who clawed the effort away one-handed. Marcus Rashford came on for the final 15 minutes to inject pace and threat into the game but could not conjure any magic for his team.
With only 6 shots (1 on target) by United compared to 25 (8 on target) by Sevilla, United looked content to take the tie back to Old Trafford in the balance but another similar display there could prove much more costly.
Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona (Champions League)
Willian proved Chelsea’s inspiration as a dominant display slipped to a draw in the first leg against one of the Champions League favourites. A highly disciplined performance was spoilt by an uncharacteristic defensive error from the Blues which gave the stifled Catalans an away draw despite Chelsea controlling long periods of this game.
Despite having 73% of possession, Barcelona largely failed to threaten the Chelsea goal, and the Blues seemed happy to let the Catalans keep the ball in harmless areas of the pitch. The speed of Willian proved the biggest difference between these two sides, the Brazilian twice hitting the woodwork before finding the net just after the hour mark.
With Lionel Messi and Barcelona being suffocated through Chelsea’s relentless pressing in their own half, a loose pass from Andreas Christensen gave them the opening they craved which Messi duly converted to even the scores. Chelsea must now do it all again when the two teams meet in Spain for the second leg in three weeks time.
Manchester United Lineup
Phil Jones, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo are all missing in defence with various knocks while Marouane Fellaini (knee) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee) are also joined by Ander Herrera who limped out of the early stages of the Sevilla game with an injured ankle. Mourinho likes to throw in some unexpected changes to his team selection for these big games and could opt for more pace in his attack this weekend to sting Chelsea on the counter.
Chelsea’s missing trio of David Luiz (knock) Ross Barkley (hamstring) and Tiemoué Bakayoko (suspended) remain unavailable for Conte, however, there are no further problems for the Italian to negotiate in picking his starting eleven. While he has not deployed a 3-5-2 formation since facing Leicester on 13th January, the availability of Álvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud could see Conte tempted to control the centre of the pitch with this set-up.
Key Battle: José Mourinho (Manchester United) vs Antonio Conte (Chelsea)
The Premier League’s two defensive masters may not share a mutual admiration for each other’s personality but they have more in common than perhaps they’d like to admit. While the rhetoric has been kept to a minimum ahead of this weekend’s clash, there’s a good chance there will be fireworks on the sidelines during the game itself.
On the pitch, both managers are likely to at least begin this contest with a safety-first policy. While an early attack may be launched from either side, the game is likely to fall into a cautious pattern if no early goals are scored.
This will leave the game open to the team who shows the most adventure as both sides are more than capable of cancelling each other out in this scenario. While both teams seek a win, neither will want defeat and the manager who risks most could well be the one to get the most reward for their club.
There has been much written in recent weeks about an ongoing feud between Paul Pogba’s current relationship with Mourinho. Much of this speculates that tensions are now running high and that the United manager id the root cause of Pogba’s recent dip in form.
There’s also a distinct possibility that Mourinho has recently been keen to rest his star midfielder ahead of the onslaught of important games which will soon fill United’s schedule. It’s also possible that whilst doing so, Mourinho also wants the Frenchman to concentrate on the weaker areas of his game during this respite of playing time to help improve his overall game in the long-term.
What is perhaps more important for United at present, is the increased game-time being handed to Scott McTominay in midfield from a manager who these same outlets accuse of not promoting academy players to the first-team.
Freedom of pressure
Antonio Conte has been in the firing line for much of this calendar year and in doing so, he has taken attention away from some of his underperforming stars. Chelsea head into this fixture with far less pressure on them to win, with many people seeing it as a game in which United must take a positive result and preferably some fluidity in their football from a home match.
Similar to the build-up to Tuesday’s clash with Barcelona, few neutrals are backing Chelsea to come away with a victory. This underdog status could go a long way to ensuring the players are more focused and less nervous when they take the pitch early on Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: Manchester United 0-1 Chelsea
While United’s poor form and below-expected run of results will surely soon end, the wait for a big victory may continue after Sunday’s clash. Chelsea’s defeat to West Brom appears to have stiffened the resolve of both players and manager while United have looked too conservative for their own good recently and Mourinho is unlikely to take this game on in a gung-ho fashion which could leave his side more vulnerable to a 1-0 defeat than he expects.