While Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to rip up statistical trees in Spain week in and week out, and Milan thrash their nearest rivals in the derby, Manchester United are still to beat any of their rivals by more than a single goal. They have hardly set the world alight. The two previous title victories in 2008 and 2009 were built on a rock-solid defence but even that is lacking this year. Yet somehow Manchester United have extended their lead at the top of the table to seven points and look more likely than ever to make the record 19th title their own. The indomitable spirit of the club, embedded from the manager down, has dragged this club clear at the top. As Mark Hughes once remarked: ”When
Yet for all the problems that assail the United camp, the team travels down to London today with every expectation of getting the necessary result over two legs. The victory against West Ham will have tested the limits of the self-belief in the United squad but the Rooney-inspired revival was better preparation for a midweek fixture than Chelsea’s draw at Stoke. Deprived of the cup-tied David Luiz, Chelsea will most likely put Branislav Ivanovic alongside John Terry in the centre of defence leaving Jose Bosingwa in the right-back slot. Bosingwa is a rampaging full-back in a way that the Serbian cannot be but he does not offer the same level of defensive solidarity. Unless he is specifically instructed to restrict his sorties into United territory by Ancelotti, the United wingers will hope to exploit the space the Portuguese leaves.
More than anyone in football Ferguson is aware of the differences between league and cup football. The title in 2009 was achieved through converting draws into wins while Rafa Benitez and his Liverpool side lost only two games but were unable to turn one point into three regularly enough. A defeat in the league is worth nothing but if United were to come away from Stamford Bridge with a 2-1 loss as they did only a few months ago then Ferguson would certainly laud a good job well done. The Red Devils have not won at the home of the Champions in far too long but an away goal and the second leg at Old Trafford, one of the most feared fortresses in Europe, would be cause enough for optimism.
Of course Chelsea are no insubstantial matter and Schalke impressed last night against the European champions Inter, but in avoiding the big two Spanish sides, United fans will feel quietly confident that a decent result at Stamford Bridge will set the league leaders up nicely to progress all the way to the final. Should they meet Barcelona there, no doubt Ferguson will wish to settle a little unfinished business.