Two ailing giants come together at Old Trafford for what looks set to be a highly significant encounter, as Manchester United go all out to arrest their slide against Chelsea, who will remain in crisis until they start climbing the table.
The pressure that currently rests on the shoulders of United boss Louis van Gaal could hardly be any heavier, and as every abject display and every poor result goes by the question marks over his long-term future at the club are only growing larger. The losing run now stands at four matches in all competitions, compounded by going out of the Champions League, and they were made to look very average indeed by Stoke City on Boxing Day as they succumbed without much of a fight.
The eyecatching piece of team news from that game in the West Midlands was captain Wayne Rooney being dropped to the bench, a tactical move from van Gaal which totally backfired and only added to the barrage of criticism which is coming the way of the Dutchman at present. He badly needs a win here for the sake of his job security, but even if results do turn around, the supporters will not be appeased until the level of entertainment increases. If things go wrong again here, the ill feeling from the stands will be all too evident.
For all of United’s problems – and they are numerous, at least they are not in the same position in the league that Chelsea currently find themselves in. If the results in Monday’s earlier kick-offs go against them, they could begin this match in the bottom three, such is the extent of their fall from grace after winning the title last season. This fixture is so often a huge one in the race to finish on top, but this time both clubs are stagnant and in a state of turmoil, which is largely all of their own making.
The Blues are at least showing the odd glimpse that they can rekindle the kind of performances that befit the quality of the squad that they have available, and they have looked a lot more fluent going forward in picking up four points from home games against Sunderland and Watford. Diego Costa scored a much-needed brace against the Hornets and appeared to be something closer to his predatory best, but he will miss this one after picking up his fifth yellow card of the campaign. Even so, they are unlikely to give United any let up from their troubles.
Good news for the home side comes in the shape of Bastian Schweinsteiger returning from a three-match ban and Matteo Darmian making his comeback from a hamstring injury. Rooney is likely to earn a recall.
Chelsea must decide whether to replace Costa with an out-and-out striker, but are set to give a start to Eden Hazard, who came off the bench against Watford.
Last Meeting: Robin van Persie fired in a dramatic last-gasp equaliser to secure a point for Man Utd in this fixture in October 2014, hammering in the rebound after Marouane Fellaini had been denied by a fine Thibaut Courtois save. That came soon after Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic had been sent off for a second booking, and his team could not hold on to the lead given to the by Didier Drogba’s near post header.
Played for both – Juan Sebastian Veron: The Argentine had real pedigree when he joined Man Utd for a huge transfer fee back in 2001, but massively underperformed to the extent that he is regarded as one of the biggest transfer flops in Premier League history, scoring a total of seven goals in 51 games. His ensuing spell at Chelsea was even worse as he made just seven league appearances despite being contracted to the club for four seasons.