Since winning at Chelsea in October 2012, on the way to a 20th league title, Manchester United’s record at Stamford Bridge is abysmal: no wins and only one draw in six subsequent games. Their most recent visit was the worst of all, a 4-0 hammering last October that was the low point of Jose Mourinho’s time in charge so far.
As if history doesn’t make Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal daunting enough, Mourinho and his men head to London following a 4,500-mile round trip to Russia for last Thursday’s Europa League round-of-32 first leg vs. Rostov. Chelsea, by contrast, haven’t had a game since their 22-mile round trip to West Ham last Monday.
Further, United will be missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their player of the season so far, a one-man goal factory whose tally of 26 in all competitions is almost three times that of the next top scorer, Juan Mata. Ibrahimovic will serve the first of a three-match suspension after he accepted a violent conduct charge for elbowing Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings in last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
United are used to being favourites in almost every game they play but, despite not having lost in 17 league outings since their last visit to Chelsea, they will be underdogs as they face the best team in England this season.
(It’s not like United can hold out for a draw either, as FA Cup sixth-round replays have been abolished. The move pleased Mourinho when he was asked about it earlier this season; he may revise that view if it’s 1-1 after 88 minutes.)
Mourinho wants to win a treble this season, or a treble-and-a-half since he counts the Community Shield as half a trophy. He’s already won the EFL Cup and his side are well placed to reached the last eight of the Europa League, ahead of Thursday’s second leg at home vs. Rostov.
While Ibrahimovic has been the key man overall, he’s only played 28 minutes of FA Cup football: A substitute cameo in the last round at Blackburn Rovers, in which he scored the winning goal. In Europe, the only two games that United have lost were the two in which Ibrahimovic didn’t start, defeats at Feyenoord and Fenerbahce.
Apart from a game vs. Arsenal in November, when he was suspended, Ibrahimovic has played every single minute of every league game this season. Only Paul Pogba, who needs to step up on Monday after some indifferent displays, has played as much.
Marcus Rashford filled in as United’s lead striker against Arsenal, but failed to have the same impact as in the equivalent fixture last season, when he scored twice. The 19-year-old’s favourite United goal came come in an FA Cup sixth round replay at West Ham a year ago but Rashford, often played in a wide-left role, has been less prolific this season with seven goals from 36 games.
He could get a chance to lead the line in Ibrahimovic’s absence, possibly in a 4-3-3 formation with Anthony Martial to his left and Juan Mata on the right, though Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been among United’s best performers in recent months and deserves a chance to play against a side of Chelsea’s pedigree.
The Armenian midfielder was not involved in that October game, when Mourinho went for a five-man midfield featuring Rashford, Pogba, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Jesse Lingard. Fellaini was brought off at half-time but could make up for Ibrahimovic’s absent physical threat. Lingard, who is admired by Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, was replaced by Martial that day. Michael Carrick, meanwhile, didn’t get off the bench.
United played with an uncustomary three at the back in Rostov and the alignment didn’t convince, albeit in difficult conditions. Was it kidology from Mourinho or preparation to match Chelsea’s successful formation? United’s defence is a concern and Chris Smalling had possibly his poorest game in a United shirt the last time the sides met, when the hosts took the lead after just 26 seconds.
When asked about Monday’s game against the club he led to three league titles, Mourinho said he won’t field a “Nicky Butt team,” referring to the former United midfielder’s current role as United academy director. Mourinho sees talent in some youngsters at the club but doesn’t trust them enough to start at Stamford Bridge. Instead, he’ll go with a strong team, partly because he’s vengeful, but chiefly because he wants United to retain the FA Cup for the first time in their history.
The manager does not have priorities; he wants to win every trophy on offer and has a large squad with no injuries, even if there’s clearly room for improvement, with a second striker and a left-back he fully trusts among the main areas of focus.
Hindsight shows how things have changed since the start of the season, when right-back was considered a bigger problem than the opposite flank and, in Ibrahimovic, Rashford, Martial and Wayne Rooney, United hardly looked short of goalscorers.
There are too many games at present for Mourinho to feel satisfied with his side’s preparation, but that’s because United have been successful in non-league competitions this term: Monday will be the 20th cup tie, with up to eight more to follow.
The fans are certainly up for the trip to Chelsea and the increased 5,685 ticket allocation was oversubscribed by 3,000, even though the game is on a Monday evening. The atmosphere will be rocking in the away end at Stamford Bridge, with supporters keen to see if perceived improvement since their last visit is genuine and whether the Reds are closer to being able to go toe-to-toe with the best.
Chelsea’s official website mocked United’s recent league form last week when an article said it has “lifted them all the way from sixth to sixth.” Actually, United were seventh after the 4-0 but it is true that the improvement in league position has been marginal. Winning at Chelsea, though, would send a powerful signal that Mourinho and Co. have not stood still.