Manchester United travel to Stamford Bridge tonight to take on Premier League leaders Chelsea in a game which will see José Mourinho return to his former employers for the second time this season.
The last meeting between the two clubs ended with a blowout 4-0 victory for Antonio Conte’s men, and Mourinho will have his work cut out to avoid defeat in this FA Cup quarter-final encounter too, with star striker Zlatan Ibrahimović suspended and back-up options Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford all believed to be ruled out.
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Chelsea go into the game with no injuries or suspensions, so Conte’s selection will depend entirely on how much emphasis he intends to place on winning the FA Cup this term.
In the previous round’s 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Italian tactician stook to his trusted 3-4-3 shape, but rotated many of his strating players, with the likes of Nathan Aké, Kurt Zouma and John Terry coming into the team.
However, sensing the chance to secure a domestic double in his maiden campaign in England, Conte will likely select a full-strength XI to give his team the best possible chance of reaching a Wembley semi-final.
Mourinho would love to have the same luxury of being able to select from a fully fit squad. The Portuguese will likely choose between the less-than-ideal options of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marouane Fellaini to lead the line, with Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata almost certain to start in the wide positions.
With a Europa League last-16 second-leg tie against Rostov on Thursday arguably taking precedent, Mourinho may wish to rotate some of his first-choice defensive and midfield options. However, with the risk of suffering another Stamford Bridge humiliation, expect to see the former Inter Milan and Real Madrid boss rely on the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Eric Bailly to make United competitive.
The home side, sitting a full 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, are obviously flying and will be heavy favourites to progress tonight. Draws against Liverpool and Burnley are the only blimishes on Chelsea’s record over the last six games.
Although united have only tasted defeat once since being thumped at Stamford Bridge back in October, Mourinho’s men have dropped points recently against sides they’d expect to beat comfortably. However, in their last six all-competitions games, United, just like Chelsea, have recorded four wins and two draws.
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How the Game Will Be Won and Lost
For Chelsea, the blueprint will remain exactly the same as it has for most of the season; the 3-4-3 system has worked a charm since its introduction in September and there is no reason to stray from that now.
When the two sides last met at Stamford Bridge the movement and fluidity of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa proved too much for United to handle, with the Red Devils’ backline constantly being pulled out of shape and exposed; from Conte’s point of view, he’ll be expecting much of the same.
However, his opposite number will have been stung by that result, and the string of injuries and Ibrahimović's suspension could force Mourinho to revert to the type of ultra-defensive set-up that he employed to secure a 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield earlier in the season.
Short of attacking options, the Portuguese coach could well opt to instruct his players to sit back and press the opposition from a low block, with the wingers tucking right back to augment the backline, just as Ashley Young and Marcus Rashford did at Anfield.
If this approach is to be successful, however, the Red Devils must do a much better job of limiting space in their defensive third and maintaining their shape than they did last time out against the Blues.