VENUE: Stamford Bridge, London.
KICK-OFF TIME: 8.45pm
Striker and top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United’s talisman, mainly the reason they have been on an incredible run without a loss, misses out on this one tonight after elbowing Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings last weekend and consequently bagging a three-match ban. They have also lost Wayne Rooney to a training ground collision with Phil Jones, while youngsters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford loss to injury and ill health further depletes Jose Mourinho’s options in attack and worsen matters. A little bit of good news for Man Utd is that defence stalwart Eric Bailly returns having missed the Rostov game through suspension. Bastian Schweinsteiger though is a doubt.
On the other hand, Chelsea have a fully fit squad at the moment with Antonio Conte having to decide whether or not he wants to start his captain John Terry. Mourinho has been on the attack himself, saying that opposite number Antonio Conte has had it easy this season with no European football – whereas United play the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie against Rostov on Thursday.
“I know he said a couple of weeks ago it’s not his fault they’re not in the European competitions, it’s my fault and the players’ fault. But the reality is that he got in his hands a situation where they have time to work, time to rest, time to relax, time to disconnect. They have time to travel, time to have holidays, time to go to America and enjoy America for a couple of days, they have time for all of these things. So they’re in a position of privilege, the same privilege that Liverpool had a couple of years ago when they almost won the Premier League.”
Mourinho also aimed a dig at Conte’s style of play, suggesting that while he was criticised for playing defensive football during his time as Chelsea boss, the Italian is using the same template.
“ I don’t want to say that they don’t deserve credit for it. They choose a certain style of play that I think is very adapted to the qualities of these players. They defend a lot and well, and they counter-attack and kill opponents on the counter-attack, similar to my Chelsea. The difference is they play with five at the back and I played four at the back, but it’s the same criteria – a very strong team to defend and a team that kills on the counter-attack.”
However, we got a response from Conte, who disagreed with Mourinho’s assessment saying:
” I have to tell you one thing. Not only here [at Chelsea] but I never, ever train for the counter-attack. Never prepare for the counter-attack. I think the counter-attack is an option, above all, if you have this type of player, players who are very, very fast. ‘Also Costa is a counter-attacking man, and Willian and Pedro. It’s normal to have this situation with space, so they know what they can do. It’s important to train the other aspects – when we have the ball, when we stay almost always in our opponents’ half, to prepare when we are attacking. ‘It’s very difficult to train counter-attacking but it’s not my priority. ”
Jose Mourinho: “It is not Chelsea’s fault that we were given this Monday match, so we have to make changes for sure… but we cannot go to Stamford Bridge with a Nicky Butt team. We cannot go with Nicky Butt’s team. Manchester United is too big. Manchester United is the winner of the competition.”
Antonio Conte: “I’ve shown at Chelsea, not only Chelsea, every team that I managed, that I live the game with great passion. Sometimes I want to share my enthusiasm, my passion with my players, with my staff, also with the fans. I think it’s normal. For me the most important thing is to try to win, then to think for another celebration.”
Interestingly, the last loss suffered by Mourinho’s men was against the high-flying EPL table toppers back in October. A 4-0 thumping it was and an excessively dominant display by the London club one must admit. That was at the beginning of Chelsea’s amazing run up till this moment. Another interesting thing is that teams have found it so hard and almost impossible to subdue the Blues upon parading same set of players almost always and putting up the same formation.
Within no notable United striker on parade especially Zlatan – even though they might not have counted for anything had they all been present given Chelsea’s defensive solidity – and just midfielder Marouane Fellaini to play upfront. It appears to be a daunting task, a bridge too far for the Red Devils especially if Conte decides to parade his best legs.
Chelsea to emerge victorious tonight and advance into what looks like a ‘dream’ FA semi-final composition for all and sundry.