The top two in the Premier League go head-to-head on Sunday (4pm GMT) when unbeaten leaders Chelsea host Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea have been excellent in domestic action so far this season, recording seven wins and one draw, scoring 19 and conceding just six (a joint league best).
What is more, they have done so whilst playing highly-attractive football. Roberto Di Matteo kept his job after leading the team to Champions League glory in a far from beguiling manner, but the summer arrivals of Eden Hazard and Oscar have transformed an ageing team into a vibrant outfit full of ideas in the attacking third.
Chelsea have scored four goals on three separate occasions, including last weekend’s 4-2 victory away to Tottenham Hotspur, and have only failed to score once. They have the second best scoring record in the league, only bettered by Sunday’s opponents.
Hazard and Juan Mata have five assists apiece, usually operating as part of an attacking midfield three behind Fernando Torres in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They have, over the last month or so, been joined by the young Brazilian Oscar, another with sublime touch and vision. The trio are still working on their combination play, but individually possess the talent to unlock most defences.
Torres is still not the sharp striker who made such an impression in his early years at Liverpool, but has nevertheless managed four goals to date. He was lifeless in Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, but with such a deliciously inventive trio behind him should still be capable of getting a decent number of goals over the course of the season.
Shakhtar really took the game to Chelsea and were rewarded with an excellent victory. Tottenham, too, caused them problems last weekend, but the absences of Gareth Bale and Moussa Dembele deprived Spurs of the necessary incision to take full advantage.
With this and problems in his own back four in mind, Sir Alex Ferguson may well decide that attack is the best form of defence for his Man Utd side on Sunday.
United went 2-0 down within twenty minutes to Sporting Braga in their own midweek Champions League engagement, the away side having to do little of note to get themselves into scoring positions. The obligatory comeback ensued, with United eventually triumphing 3-2, but Ferguson will still ruminate on defensive issues that are becoming all too regular this season.
Ferguson’s side have conceded 11 times in eight Premier League matches and three times in as many Champions League encounters. These are not terrible statistics by any means, but the domestic figures in particular are significantly less impressive than last season, when United conceded just 33 times over of the course of the campaign.
Injuries to young defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have lessened Ferguson’s options when Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic have not been available. There has also been little help from a midfield that have been easily overrun on occasion, most notably in the first half of the 3-2 home defeat to Tottenham.
That match was one of eight across 11 Premier League and Champions League fixtures in which United have conceded the first goal. By sheer force of will they have turned six of these losing positions into victories, but the lackadaisical manner of many of their first half performances will surely be worrying Ferguson.
These issues have forced United to be brutally effective in attack, with 21 goals in eight Premier League matches allowing them to pick up 18 points, just four shy of Chelsea at the top of the table. Robin Van Persie has hit the ground running with six goals since his summer move from Arsenal, while Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and right-back Rafael each have two to their name.
Kagawa is injured for the trip to Stamford Bridge, which may cause Ferguson to move away from the offensive midfield diamond he has deployed in recent matches. The fluidity of Chelsea’s attacking midfield three is a joy to watch when they have the ball, but can leave the team open to quick attacks to the flanks, something that the re-introduction of Antonio Valencia would allow United to take advantage of.
Chelsea are without two of their most emblematic players, with Frank Lampard and John Terry missing through injury and suspension respectively. Di Matteo is therefore likely to opt for a central midfield two of Ramires and John Obi Mikel, with Gary Cahill and David Luiz lining up in the centre of defence.
Chelsea v Man Utd Betting Tips Advice
- This likely to be a highly entertaining match, reminiscent of the 3-3 draw the pair played out in the equivalent fixture last season rather than the cagey affairs that previously characterised the meetings between them. Therefore, back over 2.5 goals @ 7/10 with Bet365 or Blue Square.
- It is difficult to find much value in betting on either team as this match could really go either way. United’s propensity to concede first does, however, make the odds on Chelsea to lead at the break highly attractive. With this in mind, back Chelsea to lead at half time @ best odds of 2/1 with Stan James or Coral.