Jose Mourinho’s quest for revenge over his former club tonight looks an even tougher task as he brings his virtually ‘striker-less’ Manchester United side to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea in the FA Cup. The evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suspended for three games as a result of deliberately elbowing Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings in the face,while three other forwards are ruled out through injury.
Wayne Rooney is believed to have suffered a leg injury after colliding with defender Phil Jones in training, while Marcus Rashford is ill and France’s Anthony Martial is also injured. Chelsea are strong favourites to join Arsenal, Spurs and Man City in the semi-finals as Antonio Conte’s side have lost just once since October and been in imperious form all season.
United boss Mourinho has launched scathing criticism at Conte’s direct brand of football at champions-elect Chelsea throughout the season so it would be ironic if he was reduced to employing similar tactics himself in the FA Cup clash. Marouane Fellaini is a possible option in attack, but the lanky ex-Everton man is more infamous for his elbows than renowned for his intricate build-up play.
Chelsea will be United’s 46th game of a frenetic season and the team has shown some signs of fatigue in recent games. The Red Devils made a 4,000 mile round trip to Rostov in Russia for their Europa League game last Thursday are grateful for the extra day’s rest provided by this game taking place on a Monday night.
Perhaps United’s best plan is to play for a draw and take Chelsea back to Old Trafford for a reply. Although more fixture congestion will hardly help in Mourinho’s priority to qualify for next season’s Champions League – which is where a team of their stature needs to be, especially after two years in the Europa League wilderness.
Chelsea meanwhile are cantering off into the distance in the Premier League and will be eyeing up winning a league and cup double. Eden Hazard, a player reborn of last year’s disastrous season has spoken of his admiration for Antonio Conte, and how the manager changed the Blues’ system earlier this season – Chelsea went to the 3-4-3 – and crucially also altered Hazard’s role.
“I am more central now,” Hazard said. “I like it when I am in the middle, I am closer to the ball. The manager wants me to pass, to make assists, create chances and I do more because I think the position is more central and I don’t ask all the time for the ball at my feet. To come back after last season – this is completely different. We are back to fighting for the title.”