The champions’ recent home record against today’s opponents suggests they can restore some pride to a deflating season
Manchester United have struggled at Stamford Bridge in recent seasons. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
The match at Stamford Bridge will be presented as a grand spectacle. It is simple enough to make the claim when Chelsea, reigning champions who have effectively lost their title, seek to insist upon their status by beating Manchester United, the leaders of the Premier League. In this trying season the hosts can almost feel relief at the arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team.
Chelsea were last beaten by United at home in April 2002, more than a year before Roman Abramovich bought the club. The sense of occasion that comes with this match regularly galvanises them. The superiority has been so marked as to be incongruous.
The side has not simply avoided losing to United at Stamford Bridge but also prevented them, on many occasions, from making any impression. Over the 10 games without defeat by these visitors Chelsea have conceded a paltry four goals and a couple of them were in a draw that took place as long ago as August 2002.
The encounter ahead, however, sets before us teams that need careful management. Carlo Ancelotti and Ferguson no longer have quite the means enjoyed in recent times. While Chelsea completed the double last season, that looked the feat of a club that had fulfilled itself and hardly expected such impact again.
Ancelotti should feel sheepish about the key issue. The priority for Chelsea is merely to claw their way past Tottenham Hotspur and, at the minimum, hold on to fourth place so there is a path to next season’s Champions League. In the broader context a great deal has gone wrong at Stamford Bridge. In times gone by the side would have preserved a 1-0 lead late in an FA Cup replay at home but this year Branislav Ivanovic conceded a free-kick near the 18-yard line and Leighton Baines equalised. Everton won the penalty shoot-out.
Last season’s exploits now seem like a show-stopping finale to an era. There were 103 goals in the league alone but not even Ancelotti’s acumen could keep such form intact. While Ferguson’s side is to the fore there are parallels with Chelsea. He, with more success, has also been wringing out drops of influence from the old guard.
With Ryan Giggs injured, he still calculated that he could cope with the Champions League away leg at Marseille while asking no more of Paul Scholes than a 17-minute interlude in a tolerable 0-0 draw. The calibrations are delicate. It assists Ferguson, too, that there are certain younger men who can achieve an impact and Nani made the French champions too uneasy ever to take risks.
There has been a dividend for United’s grand continuity in the manager’s office but few clubs ever discover someone who merits so extended a tenure. This campaign is also a prolonged trial to Ferguson. No one anticipated such a small return from Wayne Rooney. His greatest impact of late may have come with the elbow to the head of Wigan’s James McCarthy on Saturday.
He did at least remember to score and four goals for Rooney in February might encourage Ferguson to think that there will be a return on the effort and expense the club went to when holding on to the forward. This could be presented as a disrupted campaign for United were it not for the fact that results are somehow good.
It is not a claim to be made for Chelsea. The signing in January of Fernando Torres, below, and David Luiz, with the latter ineligible for the Champions League, did not smack of a grand strategy. All the same those purchases confirmed Abramovich’s readiness to fund a new phase. The process will certainly get the attention of the squad if, as looks likely, John Terry has to fight for his place when Ivanovic and David Luiz also compete for the centre-back roles.
Chelsea, however, lack adroitness and it is not easy to envisage them coming up with an inexpensive scorer such as United’s Javier Hernández, with the initial fee to the Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara thought to be no more than £6m. He has nine Premier League goals so far despite starting a mere eight games in that competition. A stability dividend is hard to come by and, although Frank Arnesen is coming to the end of a six-year stay at Stamford Bridge, his role varied and influence has fluctuated.
Every proprietor craves continuity but they are also terrified of staying loyal to the wrong man. While Ancelotti is expected to depart in the summer, that is more likely to lead to upheaval than to a golden age at Chelsea.