1. Can Moyes get over his Mourinho hoodoo?
One of the main persistent criticisms of David Moyes surrounds his supposedly innate conservatism as a manager.
While he oversaw an Everton side that always performed solidly, he was not exactly a boundary pusher with the Toffees, and hence, they invariably failed to challenge for the top four during his reign.
His cautious approach is highlighted by the fact that in his many league encounters with Jose Mourinho thus far as a manager, he has failed to win once, with the Portuguese coach’s sides earning 17 of a possible 21 points in total in these fixtures.
Granted, most of those matches were with an inferior Everton side, while one of Moyes’ draws against Mourinho came earlier in the season with United at Old Trafford.
Yet, particularly given United’s erratic form of late, the prospect of facing them at Stamford Bridge — where the Londoners haven’t lost all season in the league — is a daunting one, made all the more difficult by Mourinho’s enviable record over his counterpart.
2. How will United approach the game?
This is an interesting question, as they displayed differing styles in the first and second half against Swansea last week.
It’s hard to tell which of these 45-minute periods gives a truer reflection of the level United are at right now, as the second half was as encouraging as the first was depressing.
In the opening 45, Adnan Januzaj was handed the responsibility of operating in the number 10 role, whereas Shinji Kagawa had to make do with playing wide left. Consequently, United produced a palpably uninspired half of football, with their Welsh opponents dominating possession and generally looking the better team.
After the break though, Januzaj and Kagawa switched positions enabling both to become increasingly influential, while the defence held a higher line and their pressing was far more pronounced, causing the game’s dynamic to shift and United subsequently secured a deserved victory in a relatively comfortable and convincing fashion.
The daring approach of that clash’s latter stages is what’s needed against a defensively imperious Chelsea side today, in what is very much a must-win game for United. While the Red Devils’ title hopes are surely over, a place in the top four remains very much attainable, and so, they can’t let overt caution dictate their play.
On the other hand though, Moyes has often tended to leave the likes of Januzaj out of big games — such as against Arsenal — so he may well spring a surprise prior to kick-off and opt for a different strategy entirely.
3. What style will Chelsea adopt?
(Eden Hazard is Chelsea’s top scorer so far this season – Scott Heppell/AP/Press Association Images)
There is no doubting that Jose Mourinho’s men, with the likes of Oscar, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Willian in their squad, are potentially a very exciting team to watch.
Nevertheless, of late, they have favoured a far more pragmatic approach.
They have conceded just one goal in their last six games — a stat that owes as much to Mourinho’s meticulous organisational abilities and overtly conservative set-up as it does to the stellar defending of players such as John Terry and Gary Cahill.
It is a stark contrast to the way they were playing earlier in the season, when they were certainly more adventurous in attack, but it also led to them conceding too many cheap goals — beating Sunderland 4-3 and losing to Stoke 3-2 in consecutive games seems to have been a watershed moment, as it prompted Mourinho to consciously and perhaps irrevocably alter their style.
Moreover, given that their defence-oriented strategy has brought them significant success in recent games, don’t expect them to be any less pragmatic today.
4. How will United cope with the absence of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie?
While David Moyes has made plenty of mistakes, he has also suffered a significant level of misfortune since taking over as United boss.
Their lack of transfer activity was ostensibly more the fault of the likes of vice-chairman Ed Woodward rather than the beleaguered Scot, who has been without at least one of his only two world-class players for a considerable portion of the season.
And unfortunately for United, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie will also miss this afternoon’s game with Chelsea. Their anticipated replacements — Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa — while hardly untalented or decidedly deficient, are undoubtedly incomparable to the club’s inimitable missing match-winners.
United, though, at least have Adnan Januzaj within their ranks. The teenager has been a revelation this season, and will likely be expected to compensate for the absence of other similarly creative and more experienced talents. The Belgian-born star, however, has shown in recent matches that he has the maturity, game intelligence and technical prowess to cause any opponent big problems, irrespective of the size of the occasion or pressure it entails.
5. Can Chelsea’s misfiring strikers come good on the big occasion again?
While Jose Mourinho’s men are superior in many departments to United, up front, they simply have no one of the quality of Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie.
The fact that Chelsea’s top scorers (Eden Hazard, 10 goals, Oscar, eight goals) are midfielders is telling, and this lack of an available top-class striker seems the primary reason why most people remain unconvinced that they have the capabilities to win this year’s Premier League. Fernando Torres has just four goals in the league, while Samuel Eto’o (three) and Demba Ba (one) have even poorer records.
When you compare Torres’ record to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, who has 22 goals in the league, it gives you a sense of how badly they are struggling up front.
That said, the Stamford Bridge outfit’s strikers have at least shown an ability to influence big games this season. Eto’o scored the second goal against Liverpool back in December and Torres hit a last-minute winner in their 2-1 defeat of Man City last October. Can they raise their games to a similar extent today against United’s similarly inept defence?