The optimism engendered by Manchester United’s recent stellar form threatens to be undermined by injuries to Phil Jones, Daley Blind and Michael Carrick ahead of a clash with Chelsea which could yet breathe new life into the Premier League title race.
All three had started every match of the watershed four-game spell (victories over Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester City) that has carried United to a point where victory at Stamford Bridge could pry open the seemingly closed book on top spot in the division.
Carrick and Blind had both been instrumental in United’s recent outings, yet the absence of Jones may be felt most keenly, with Marcos Rojo also out of action.
It leaves Louis van Gaal with just three fit centre halves, Chris Smalling and the inexperienced pair Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair to call upon – a far from ideal situation against the might of the league leaders.
Or is it? Because, in the latter, the Old Trafford club have a player with both a stellar start-to-win ratio in a red shirt and a habit of making the XI when his side go away to fellow Champions League aspirants and come home with points to show for it.
United have won nine of the 11 games in which the teenage Northern Irishman has started this term, losing just once.
While it can be pointed out that gimme-victories over Yeovil and Cambridge add gloss to that sequence, it can equally be asserted that early season wins over West Ham and Everton came when the side was struggling for coherence and thus under more pressure defensively.
More heartening for United fans still is McNair’s uncanny knack of playing from the off in some of their best away results of the campaign (as far as the league table is concerned).
The 2-1 wins over Arsenal at the Emirates and Southampton at St Mary’s, both of which saw the Reds resolute under the cosh for long periods, while the 0-0 at White Hart Lane was made to look all the more impressive when Tottenham battered Chelsea 5-3 four days later.
United’s injury woes mean Van Gaal has the opportunity to field his own big-match St Christopher at Stamford Bridge and their 17/20 double-chance odds look all the rosier as a result.
The Reds are 13/4 outsiders for victory, with Chelsea 19/20 and the draw priced up at 12/5.