31st March 2013
Chelsea came from two goals behind at Old Trafford to earn a replay three weeks back, but had the Blues known that the replay would be played less than 48 hours after their match against Southampton, they probably wouldn’t have bothered. Manchester United, too, played on Saturday, but they clearly enter the match in much better spirits than their opponents.
This season is likely to be dubbed a failure even if Chelsea secure Champions League qualification and win the FA Cup title, but if they fail to achieve at least one of the two targets then all hell will break loose at Stamford Bridge. Roman Abramovich clearly cannot blame Rafa Benitez for the latest poor results since it was he who brought the Spaniard in the first place against his better judgement, but the reality is the Blues have largely struggled since the former Liverpool boss took over the reigns. The lack of strength in depth coped with the hectic schedule might just prove to be the key to Chelsea’s demise, and Benitez faces some tough selection choices ahead of the Manchester United clash. With Juan Mata and Gary Cahill both doubtful, he just doesn’t have enough quality players to replace the entire starting line-up, which by the way was beaten by Southampton at the weekend, while it will be very difficult for the players who did start at St Mary’s to produce a quality display less than 48 hours later. At least Demba Ba, Ashley Cole, Eden Hazard, Ramires and David Luiz all return.
No matter how many millions Manchester City and other title contenders spend every transfer window, Manchester United pay no attention and just follow their own path, which usually leads them to glory. The Red Devils have made several slip ups this season, but they have been absolutely amazing most of the time and thus the 15-point cushion at the Premiership summit. United were unfortunate to be eliminated from the Champions League due to a refereeing error, but they are still in the race for the FA Cup title, even if the road to the title is by no means easy. Should they pip Chelsea to a place in the semi-final, they will battle local rivals Manchester City, but first things first. Sir Alex Ferguson was able to rest a number of regular starters at the weekend and still field a side that eased off to a win at the Stadium of Light, while never really putting their foot on the gas. That should give the Red Devils an extra edge in the all-important clash at Stamford Bridge, and given them a good chance to make amends for squandering a two-goal lead when the two sides met at Old Trafford. The likes of Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley all return, but Rafael misses out with a groin problem.
Had they had few more days to rest from the disappointing defeat to Southampton, Chelsea would probably stand a better chance of reaching the next stage, but given the timing of the tie, it is advantage United. The Red Devils are playing with a lot of confidence at the moment and there is a value in backing them to qualify.
Verdict: United to qualify
Best Odds: 1/1
Bookmaker: Paddy Power