Follow the Ball – Game 8: Chelsea vs Manchester United

All the way through 2016 I want to spend some time watching football that I wouldn’t normally watch. The plan I have to achieve that is by following football matches in a Winner Stays On style, and basically spend 12 months “going unbeaten”. Game 8 is a match I’d have watch anywhere, regardless of this Follow the Ball series; but it is an important.

Chelsea and Manchester United are due to play knock-out matches in European competition in the next couple of weeks. Assuming the victor in this match can make it through their clash with Newcastle United or Sunderland next weekend, then the chances of this football watching adventure heading into European leagues increases massively.

Game 4: Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal (c)
Barclays Premier League, Sunday 17th January 2016, Britannia Stadium

Game 5: Arsenal (c) 0-1 Chelsea
Barclays Premier League, Sunday 24th January 2016, Emirates Stadium

Game 6: MK Dons 1-5 Chelsea (c)
The Emirates FA Cup, Sunday 31st January 2016, Stadium mk

Game 7: Watford 0-0 Chelsea (c)
Barclays Premier League, Wednesday 3rd February 2016, Vicarage Road

This is Chelsea’s fourth game that I’ve watched, and the first time they have played at Stamford Bridge.

Game 8: Chelsea v Manchester United
Barclays Premier League, Sunday 7th February 2016, Stamford Bridge

The Skinny: I’m really looking forward to watching both games in this match as this is a proper test for both.

Chelsea have had reasonably easy since I first watched them in 2016 when they took the crown off Arsenal. The Gunners went down to 10 men very early in the games whereas neither the MK Dons nor Watford really pushed the Premier League champions to their limits. This Manchester United, while a long way from the form side in the league, should be able to match Chelsea and will be a decent gauge as to where Guus Hiddink has currently got the team.

For the visiting team; this game comes at just the right time. The two recent games against Derby and Stoke have seen much improved attacking performances from the Man Utd players. Derby sat deep and allowed the United players room to operate and they followed that up with a bright start that blew Stoke away during the midweek games. They have built up a little bit of steam and it might be enough to see them past Chelsea.

The Match: Just as I was trying to plan for life watching the Danish Superliga and ensuring I could watch FC Midtjylland on a regular basis, Diego Costa pounced upon a huge opportunity and the ball into the goal. The game was really entertaining with real ebb and flow between the two teams. Manchester United were happy to soak up pressure after going in front, but they dropped deeper and deeper until they eventually allowed Chelsea in to equalise.

On balance, looking at the full 90 minutes it’s probably a fair result that the two teams shared the points but that will be little comfort for Manchester United. They were only a handful of injury time minutes from their third win in a row in all competitions, and a huge boost to their confidence. Instead they sit six points behind their Manchester rivals and out of the running for the top four (barring an impressive collapse from one of the current top four).

Eight of Chelsea’s 16 attempts on goal came after Jesse Lingard had opened the scoring, and in the first half they had less than 40% of possession. With both John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic in the starting line-up and Cesc Fabregas playing in the number 10 role instead of Eden Hazard or Oscar, the home side were never going to try and take control of the ball. There was clearly a desire to frustrate their visitors, sit deep and allow to pass it around within their own structured shape and pick them off with rapid counter-attacking through Oscar, Willian and Diego Costa. It worked to a point, although they will need to show more attacking impetus if they are to get past Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

Jesse Lingard did exceptionally well to score his goal. It was all instinct and was struck so well that Thibaut Courtois had very little chance of reacting in time to save it. The arrival of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial appears to have awoken something in Lingard and he is starting to fulfill some of the potential he showcased during very impressive loan spells in the Championship.

I don’t care how much they spent on him; Anthony Martial is a fantastic player and Manchester United are incredibly lucky to have him in their ranks.

Back in December I lost my balance playing sport, tried to put my left foot down to steady myself and felt a pop in my left knee. I ruptured the ACL in my left knee and will have surgery in March. As the replays for Zouma’s injury were shown on TV my left felt tense. It didn’t look good and was confirmed on Monday to be a similar injury. Chelsea will be buoyed by the fact they have Gary Cahill in reserve but it is a huge shame for a prospect like Zouma, on the cusp of playing a major tournament in his home country this summer, that he’ll spend the next six months of the sidelines.

The Result: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United

The away side will be annoyed not to leave with all three points given how long was left when the equaliser rolled in. On balance, it was a fair result.

What’s next? Chelsea vs Newcastle United in the Premier League

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