Angel Di Maria holds the key to defeating Chelsea's midfield
Well, here it is: the first formidable test of Manchester United's season, and one that finds them in uncertain health. Chelsea, their visitors, arrive in a mercifully weakened state, with both of their best forwards -- Diego Costa and Loic Remy -- diminished by injury.
While Remy looks likely to miss out on Sunday's game at Old Trafford, the state of Costa's fitness remains unclear. The Spain international, who has nine league goals already this season, was rested for his team's 6-0 victory over SK Maribor in the UEFA Champions League this week, and manager Jose Mourinho has said he has "a little chance" of featuring on Sunday.
Whether he plays or not, Manchester United will still have some very substantial problems to contend with. As the saying goes, what a difference a year makes.
The last Chelsea came to Old Trafford, their starting lineup featured Andre Schurrle as a lone striker. This was a selection that was seen by many as Mourinho's frustration at the thinness of his attacking options. The ensuing 0-0 draw, in which the home team were of course complicit, was one of the most tactically negative matches of this profile that the Premier League had seen in some time. Since then, however, Schurrle has proven himself decisive both as a scorer and creator on the greatest stage of all, playing a pivotal role in his country's capture of the World Cup this summer.
Manchester United vs. Chelsea
- Darke: Van Gaal, Mourinho prepare for reunion
- Cox: Di Maria, Mata out to make Mourinho pay
- Jolly: Fabregas signals shift in balance of power
- Payne: United can win if Van Gaal makes tough call
- Macintosh: Who can stop Chelsea?
- Dall: United out to avoid public humiliation
The greatest area of contention for Manchester United, though, will be not Chelsea's attack but their midfield. While the home team have been worryingly exposed on the break in recent matches, most recently against West Bromwich Albion, several of their problems still stem from a failure to command the centre of the park. In this area, Chelsea are supreme.
Their midfield triangle of Oscar, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic is almost as good a blend as can be found in Europe. While Fabregas does not offer the same defensive capabilities as the other two, his creativity from deep-lying areas has almost no parallel in the Premier League -- with the notable exception this season of Southampton's Dusan Tadic. Each of these players is in fine form, and as a unit they have already blended well.
The concern for Louis van Gaal is that his own midfield still seems to be a work in progress. Ander Herrera did not look fully fit against West Brom, and Daley Blind must show that he can impose himself upon a powerful midfield opponent. His toughest test thus far has probably been Leicester City's Esteban Cambiasso, and the former Argentina international gave him the type of problems that could be a precursor for Sunday's game.
In this context, the role of whoever plays the No. 10 is all the more important. There was widespread uproar when Mourinho so swiftly marginalised Juan Mata at Chelsea, but Oscar, his replacement, offers his fellow midfielders far more protection. With Van Gaal's team less likely to pour forward, having presumably learned the lessons of prior matches, this looks set to be a battle of attrition in midfield. Given that Chelsea also have Willian at their disposal, this is a battle the Londoners are likely to win.
Wayne Rooney's absence through suspension will be keenly felt. Although there have been questions over how well he combines with Falcao and Robin van Persie, a partnership that may still be too embryonic to judge, he would have offered greater defensive solidity just behind the front two. Van Gaal is in a difficult situation because Angel Di Maria is smart enough to play centrally, but such a choice would lose his team vital thrust from the left flank. On that same side, though, Di Maria has latterly failed to offer Luke Shaw protection when his team is not in possession.
The second-half performance of Marouane Fellaini against Albion makes him an intriguing option in this case. The Belgian is missing a controlled aggression in his game, and has not so far shown the greatest enthusiasm about pressing the ball, but it will be interesting to see whether Van Gaal uses him at any point on Sunday to match the aggression of Matic.
Manchester United's back four, meanwhile, will probably be quietly grateful should Costa fail to make the trip to the Northwest. Marcos Rojo was the best of its performers a week ago, dispossessing Stephane Sessegnon and Saido Berahino with surprising ease. Alongside him, though, Shaw still looked to be finding his feet, losing the ball on numerous occasions, and Phil Jones looked to be some way from his best after his return from injury. The consolation here is that Jones very often produces his finest performances against the best opposition, a habit he would do well to continue.
The game seems likely to follow a pattern of Chelsea having plenty of the ball, with Manchester United breaking at speed wherever possible and offering their greatest threat from Di Maria's excellent set piece delivery. The sight of the home team sitting deep at Old Trafford may be anathema to many, but against a Chelsea team this formidable in the middle of the pitch, it looks to be the surest way to success.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.