Manchester United and Chelsea are two teams in transition, somewhat devoid of the star quality that was synonymous during the 2000s and even the early-2010s. Whether on the pitch or in the technical area, it was a contest between two proper heavyweights jousting for the major trophies domestically and in Europe. Between 2003-04 and 2013-14, the pair won 11 trophies apiece (together winning every club competition—Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League, Europa League, and Club World Cup—at least once). It was a rivalry that illuminated the football calendar.
United and Chelsea, for now, remain outsiders to regain the Premier League. Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final comes amidst an engrossing battle for a top-four league finish which at this stage is imperative for Chelsea to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Frank Lampard’s men have been mercurial since the resumption. League defeats to West Ham United and Sheffield United took the sheen off their impressive wins over Manchester City, Aston Villa and Leicester City in the FA Cup. Their 3-0 reverse against Sheffield threatened to knock them out of the top four but United’s 2-2 draw at home to Southampton kept the Blues third and they are potentially two wins away from sealing a Champions League spot.
They face a red-hot United side who have scored 2.6 goals per match in all competitions since June. Chelsea have been poor defensively during the same period, conceding nine goals, the most by a team in the top half of the Premier League table. Lampard has rotated his defensive personnel in recent matches, with his first-choice left-back Marcos Alonso and central defender Antonio Rudiger starting the away fixture against Sheffield on the bench. But the Chelsea manager is expected to name his strongest XI, including Alonso and Rudiger, for the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United.
United’s back four has largely remained unchanged since their first fixture back, against Tottenham Hotspur away from home. They have had a couple of forgettable moments, with Spurs’s Steven Bergwijn and Southampton’s Michael Obafemi punishing United’s defensive mishaps. The quintet of goalkeeper David de Gea, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw has, however, largely been solid. United have been devastating at the other end of the pitch, too, thanks largely to the verve and creativity provided by Bruno Fernandes and the ruthlessness of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood in front of goal.
Solskjaer said Shaw will miss Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final after failing to recover from a twisted ankle he suffered during the home league fixture against Southampton. Brandon Williams, who suffered a nasty facial injury during the same match, has not been ruled out yet. At his pre-match press conference, the United manager said: “Luke will be out. I can’t see him recovering. Brandon will hopefully be okay, he’ll try to join in training today with his eye. We’ll see if he can see the ball when he comes in. He should be fine.” Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe remain out with long-term injuries.
For Chelsea, N’Golo Kante, who missed the last three Premier League fixtures with a hamstring injury, has been ruled out. “N’Golo Kante won’t be fit for the match, he’s still not right. So he’s out,” the Chelsea manager said at his pre-match press conference. “Other than that we have a few people with a few little niggles that I’ll monitor over the next 24 hours or so, and then we’ll be ready to go.”
Manchester United vs Chelsea tactics and predicted starting 11
Solskjaer’s side beat Chelsea by an aggregate of 6-0 in their two Premier League fixtures this season. Chelsea dominated possession at Old Trafford and at Stamford Bridge, where United’s sharpness on the counter-attack proved decisive.
That United are dangerous on the counter-attack is well-documented, particularly with the pace and movement of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood, and Fernandes’ understanding and vision to thread defence-splitting passes. How Chelsea combat United’s counter-attacking threat could decide this fixture. On the other hand, if Chelsea adopt a more passive approach and get men behind the ball, can United adapt to and overcome the challenge?
Coming to the starting line-ups, Odion Ighalo started as the centre forward in United’s last two FA Cup fixtures, against Norwich City and Derby County, and rewarded his manager with a brace against Derby and by opening the scoring for United at Carrow Road. It’s possible that the Nigerian will keep his place in the starting XI against Chelsea, with Solskjaer having to decide between Greenwood and Martial to start on the right of United’s front three.
Manchester United’s predicted line-up (4-3-3): Sergio Romero (GK); Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Timothy Fosu-Mensah/Brandon Williams; Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes; Marcus Rashford, Odion Ighalo, Anthony Martial/Mason Greenwood
For Chelsea, Willy Caballero will slot in between the posts and the back four against Norwich could be retained. With Kante ruled out, Jorginho is likely to play at the base of midfield. Tammy Abraham could replace Olivier Giroud and lead the line.
Chelsea predicted line-up (4-3-3): Willy Caballero (GK); Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, Kurt Zouma/Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso; Jorginho, Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic/Mason Mount; Willian, Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic
Manchester United vs Chelsea match prediction
The FA Cup is Chelsea’s only chance to win a trophy in Lampard’s first season in charge. They have overcome Liverpool and Leicester in the previous two rounds and will look at tomorrow’s match in isolation without dwelling on the twin league defeats to United. Their defence has been found wanting at times since the resumption, but going forward, they are as good as their opponent.
Expect the teams to be circumspect early on. Also, with both teams allowed five substitutes and the option of a sixth if the match goes into extra-time, United hold the advantage with their stronger, more experienced bench.