European challenge might affect title-challengers’ title chase

Having claimed a win and a potentially precious away goal, Manchester United have the edge in the Champions League encounter with Chelsea. With European action making way for the bread and butter of the Premier League, it is worth considering how the Champions League clashes between the two might affect their league form.

For the highly anticipated clash, Carlo Ancelotti picked his strongest pairing on paper, partnering Fernando Torres with Didier Drogba. Unfortunately for the Italian, his plans folded as the misfiring duo failed to threaten United’s back line. Whilst this has left the Blues with an uphill struggle to progress in Europe, it may be of benefit in the league, having highlighted the conclusion that Torres and Drogba can’t play together. Nicolas Anelka, unfortunate to miss out in the midweek fixture, is likely to return to the fold for the visit of Wigan Athletic, and with Ancelotti continuing to back Torres: “We have to have confidence,” Drogba looks set to miss out. Whether this is the right decision or not remains to be seen, but Torres’ low confidence was evident against United, and failing to back the player could damage the Spaniard’s Chelsea career before it has started in earnest.

Issues of confidence could become more pressing should Chelsea go on to be eliminated from the Champions League. Still haunted by memories of the penalty shootout defeat in the 2008 final and apoplectic at being denied a penalty on Wednesday, Chelsea’s players have talked of revenge in the second leg. Whilst a sense of injustice may drive them on to finish with a flourish, there is an equal probability that it will engender an ugly blame culture, such as that boiling over in the wake of their semi-final defeat to Barcelona in 2009.

By comparison everything seems rosy for the Red Devils – leading the league and bringing home a first leg advantage from Stamford Bridge – although United are not without their worries. Scorer of Wednesday’s winner, Wayne Rooney, had a two-match ban upheld by the FA and will miss Saturday’s clash with Fulham. The media furore surrounding last weekend’s outburst seemed to have little impact on Rooney as he netted the winner, with the effects only setting in as he sits out the visit of Fulham.

The demanding schedule prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to reintroduce Edwin van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand, and the former appeared to have a recurrence of his groin problem. Just as progression can bring momentum, it can bring fatigue and injuries, and with a threadbare defence punished by Chelsea and Liverpool in the league, United can ill afford any absentees in the run in. With fixtures coming thick and fast as they continue to challenge on three fronts, this becomes an increasingly valid concern.

With key encounters involving the top six sides still to come, Champions League results could yet have serious implications aside from European progression. Issues arise for Chelsea in terms of form and United in terms of fitness as the demands of Europe’s premier club competition stretch both sides to breaking point.

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