On Sunday October 28, London billionaires Chelsea will host Manchester United in one of the key matches of the 2012-13 season.
Despite differing fortunes in the UEFA Champions League mid-week, both clubs are competing at the top of the Premier League table with Chelsea leading on 22 points and Manchester United in second-place with 18 points.
With a victory, Roberto Di Matteo’s men will look to open up a potentially unassailable seven-point gap against their close rivals.
On the other hand, a win for Manchester United will put them one-point behind Chelsea. A loss or draw makes way for noisy neighbors Manchester City to slide into second spot; goal difference the only factor currently separating the Mancunian clubs.
These will be some of the key match-ups to watch in the battle between the two English giants this weekend:
Fernando Torres vs. Rio Ferdinand
Fernando Torres and Rio Ferdinand were once among the top players in their positions in the entire Premier League. A heavily-burdened pricetag and age, respectively, have affected both players’ careers in recent seasons. However, on their days they are still some of the best.
Torres will look to exploit Ferdinand’s lack of pace with his terrific agility and movement in the final third. On the reverse end, the 33-year-old centre-back will try to use his height advantage and strength to out-muscle the Spaniard and leave him looking as disoriented as he was against Shakhtar Donetsk last night.
Juan Mata vs. Patrice Evra
Juan Mata took the Premier League by storm when he arrived from Valencia last season. Racking up 16 assists–second to only compatriot David Silva at Manchester City–he won the supporter’s Player of the Year award for Chelsea and brought a major threat out-wide and with his build-up play to an often overly simple team.
Veteran left-back Patrice Evra may be as quick as Mata, but lacks in his defensive capacities. It will be vital for him to control the playmaker’s threat and he may need to play tight to his centre-backs to interrupt some of the Chelsea star’s more elusive passes.
It will be Mata’s priority to attack Evra or move inward and allow the overlapping right-back to disorient the player. Evra, who is adept at crossing and playing upfield will also look to keep Mata tracking back–something the diminutive Spaniard does not often do well.
David Luiz vs. Robin van Persie
David Luiz has developed into the centre-back Chelsea was hoping he would be when they splashed €25 million to purchase him from Benfica two seasons ago. He is quick, plays out of the back, and strong in the air.
Van Persie has continued his form for Arsenal last year and is forming a great parternship with Wayne Rooney. While he is not as important to goal creation at his new club, the Dutchman’s finishing is lethal as illustrated by his 6 league and 2 European goals this campaign.
It will be Luiz’s task to shadow Van Persie on Sunday and he will need to be especially confident with the loss of John Terry to suspension. The Brazilian will require the help of Gary Cahill, but with both having a tendency to march up the field and assist in the attack the Dutchman could take advantage to punish the European champions.
John Obi Mikel vs. Wayne Rooney
Recently, Roberto di Matteo came out in an interview stating that John Obi Mikel is one of the fundamental pieces to his league-leading Chelsea side.
The Nigerian defensive midfielder plays a similar role to Sergio Busquets at Barcelona and works from deep to break-up play and get the ball to the side’s more creative midfielders. He rarely scores and is often invisible on the pitch, which has brought much criticism from Chelsea supporters.
Wayne Rooney remains the gem of English football, although he has suffered his fair share of controversy in recent seasons. Following the arrival of Van Persie, he has been successfully dropped to a deeper role behind the strikers and has become quite the pest for opposing defenses with the threat often coming from every angle.
Mikel will be fundamental to stopping Rooney from finding space to create and distribute the ball. He will be even more key if Frank Lampard is preferred to Ramires in center midfield. If the game stays goalless for a long period, much pressure will be on both men’s shoulders to keep their respective sides in the match by destroying play for one and getting the ball in the back of the net for the other.
Frank Lampard vs. Paul Scholes
This match-up is probably the most interesting because it is not even assured that either player will start on Sunday.
Lampard and Scholes are veterans of a former golden age in English football and while both very different players, they have come to define their clubs for years.
The Chelsea man’s goal-threat and devastating shots from midfield and Scholes long-passing and unlocking of opposing defenses continue to keep them in the picture even after turning 34-years-old and 37-years-old, respectively.
Lampard returned to an important role under Di Matteo and has already scored three times this campaign. The Manchester midfielder was recalled by Sir Alex Ferguson last winter and has uncommon vision for an English player, which United fans hope he is nurturing in up-and-coming star Tom Cleverley.
Do not be surprised if either player pops up to make a significant impact in this match.
Aside from these key figures, goalkeepers Petr Cech and David De Gea will need to be at their very best if they are to silence some of the best attackers in the Premier League. This fixture last season ended in a captivating 3-3 draw, so both men will look to remain in top form and organize their defense well to keep the goal tally low.
In the end, however, Chelsea may prove too much for the ageing Manchester United defense. The combination play of Mata, Oscar, and Belgian wonderkid Eden Hazard should be too overwhelming for an ageing Manchester United, even after the Londoner’s loss to Shahktar Donetsk and United’s come-from-behind win at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
The match could evolve into a back-and-forth goalfest, but regardless of the partnership between Rooney and Van Persie expect Chelsea to still top the table following the weekend.
Prediction Chelsea 3 – 2 Manchester United
Players to Watch: Mata, Hazard (Chelsea); Rooney, Van Persie (Man United)