Sky Sports will be going into meltdown, but it is definitely true that Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea on Sunday is the first of the truly heavyweight title clashes of this season’s Premier League.
Arsenal and Tottenham fans won’t thank me for saying that given they have already faced the Blues this season, but it looks like Chelsea are going to make what everybody expected to be a two-horse race between the Manchester clubs into a three-way battle for the championship and as such, United’s trip to west London already looks to be hugely significant.
First hosts second as Chelsea look to maintain, at the very least, their four-point gap at the top of the table and with both sides coming into the match on the back of less than convincing performances in the Champions League, the stakes are high.
Chelsea were soundly beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, with the 2-1 defeat flattering the away side, such was the paucity of their performance. Manager Roberto Di Matteo now admits his side face a battle to qualify for the last 16, but that fight must wait a few weeks as he looks to keep up Chelsea’s incredible domestic record.
Seven wins and a draw from eight games is a wonderful start for the Italian, who has seen his side perform excellently in patches without being consistently brilliant – in fact, at times they have looked very shaky defensively – but winning is a great habit and at the moment Chelsea are addicted.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side at least got a midweek win (in the end) but yet again the Red Devils were trailing and left having to pull another rabbit out of the hat to get a result. It was the eighth occasion this term already that United have fallen behind (they’ve come back to win six times), but the fact they were even 2-0 down in the first place to a decent but hardly brilliant Braga side shows serious deficiencies in the make-up of the team.
Ferguson claims he doesn’t know why United keep giving away leads, but he is being disingenuous: his policy of chopping and changing his personnel at the back helps nobody, let alone whoever he decides to play in goal, which seems to be decided on the toss of a coin most of the time.
A team can seldom win top prizes without knowing who their number one goalkeeper is and United’s problems at the back, exacerbated by injuries, don’t look like being solved any time soon.
It’s a good job, then, that they have goals galore in their team at the moment. Ferguson’s men have struck at least two goals in all but two of their 12 games in all competitions this season and with Javier Hernandez reminding the manager of his worth with a timely brace in midweek, Ferguson has an embarrassment of riches at the top end of the pitch.
So what to expect from a high-pressure match where both teams look to be better going forward than they do at the back? Chelsea are the 13/10 favourites with bwin to stretch their advantage over United to seven points, with United at 2/1 to cut it to one and the draw quoted at 23/10, but I think there are goals in this one and one bet in particular catches my eye.
You can get 23/10 on both teams scoring in the first half of the match and that is what I’ll be on. There have been loads of goals in recent fixtures between these sides (24 in the last seven matches) and with every reason to suggest the goals will continue to rain in, I’m prepared to take a chance both find the net in the opening 45 minutes.
Both teams have struck in the first half of three of United’s last four matches and five times in total this year. And we are talking about teams as inferior as Cluj, Braga and Stoke here (the Potters even scored twice at Old Trafford, which should set alarm bells ringing considering they never score when they leave the Britannia) and the way United are defending, you can’t see them keeping Chelsea out until the break.
But similarly, United are so threatening at the top end that they look like they could score at any time and with this one surely set to be full of goalmouth action, take the 23/10 that both teams have scored by the half-time whistle.