This week the Premier League offers a fascinating blockbuster, along with a tricky trip to London for the reigning champions.
Manchester United v. Chelsea (Sunday, October 26th - 12:00 PM ET, NBC)
For many Manchester United fans, the last few days have to feel a lot like the first week of November of 2005. Nearly nine years ago, an all-mighty Chelsea side boasting a 40-match unbeaten streak in the Premier League came swaggering into Old Trafford sitting 13 points ahead of a crumbling United in the standings.
The home side was battling all sorts of issues: injuries, damaging remarks about United's young players by then-captain Roy Keane (who, oddly enough, has been a fixture in the news cycle these days due to, you guessed it, controversial statements), as well as your run-of-the-mill string of bad results in both the league and Europe. Things looked bleak for Sir Alex Ferguson, who seemed destined to celebrate his 19th anniversary as United boss with a big heaping of misery.
And yet, this happened:
That extremely unlikely Darren Fletcher goal (who, incidentally, is the only United player from that 2005 side who could line up against Chelsea on Sunday) served as a turning point for the struggling Red Devils back then. Hence, United fans sure hope that this week-long déjà vu has a similarly happy ending. After all, the current United team is surely in need of a statement win.
Most of the momentum that came after two home wins evaporated for Manchester United as they barely escaped the Hawthorns with a solitary point last week. Once again, it was the Reds' defense that got exposed; twice this time by the speedy West Brom frontline. Lack of proper communication and spatial awareness between the fullbacks and the centerbacks forced United to dig deep just to avoid their third defeat in a very young season.
The Reds seem mired in inconsistency, and it's worth remembering that they're a very young squad. How young? Apparently United fielded the second-youngest starting lineup in all of Europe last week. But just as Keane had questions about United's youth back then, today's more expensive youngsters are also under the spotlight – particularly the ones in charge of defending.
All of that being said, one positive outcome was achieved by déjà vu team last week: for the first time this season, they managed to score a goal in the last 15 minutes of a match. Daley Blind's equalizer was also just the second overall goal scored by United in the last half hour of their matches this season.
As a handy comparison, Chelsea has scored 11 goals in that same time frame.
Speaking of the West Londoners, the consensus title favorites are facing their first bits of adversity of the campaign in the shape of injuries and a suspension. Diego Costa, a one-man wrecking crew, is allegedly out of contention for Sunday's match due to a combination of a groin injury suffered at some point during his two starts for Spain a week and a half ago and a hospital stay due to a strong stomach bug. Not only that, but Costa's understudy, Loic Remy, is out as well.
That leaves past United tormentor Didier Drogba as the lone senior striker option for Jose Mourinho, and even he claims not being "fully fit." However, this is Jose Mourinho we're talking about, so it will surprise no one if it's Costa leading the line on Sunday, with Drogba on the bench.
Another item to monitor is the fact that for the first time in Premier League play this season, Mourinho will be forced to select a different back four. The Special One has enjoyed the luxury of being able to rely on the same quartet so far, and it seemed like the Ivanovic-Terry-Cahill-Azpilicueta line was getting better and better with every game. However, Azpilicueta was sent off against Palace for a hideous challenge, so Chelsea supporters can only hope that Filipe Luis, who's yet to start a game for the Blues after his summer move from Atlético Madrid, can fill in without incident.
United have dealt with plenty of adversity so far in the season, and this week is no different. In a sight that surely worried everyone associated with the Manchester club, Di María was seen getting his thigh wrapped with ice shortly after taking a seat on the bench after being subbed out in the second half of the 2-2 draw. Adding to that, Ander Herrera played arguably his worst half of his short United career in his protective corset, and he was yanked at halftime. Playing with a broken rib might not be as straightforward as he thought.
Adding to those medical concerns, something has to be said about the way van Gaal altered a seemingly successful tactical shape in favor of something that didn't quite work. Just when we thought that United would keep their 4-1-2-1-2 formation with two strikers up top and a midfield diamond, van Gaal switched things up a bit by sending Robin van Persie as the lone striker in a new 4-2-3-1 shape that employed Di María and 19 year-old Adnan Januzaj as more traditional wingers. This resulted in 42 Manchester United crosses into the box – 11 more than against Everton and 23 more than against West Ham. Yes, United put West Brom under pressure for significant periods of the match, but it didn't really feel like a whole lot of clear-cut chances came out of the bombardment. It's a little telling that both United goals came as a result of speculative crosses that were aimed at the top of the penalty box – not exactly a high-danger area.
However, United's major concern will not be how their attackers will line up, but rather the way the midfield and defense will cope with Chelsea's speed on the counter. Even if Mourinho can't count on Costa or Remy, he can still deploy Eden Hazard, Oscar and Cesc Fàbregas right behind Drogba and create all sorts of problems for United. One thing to look for is whether Fabregas lines up alongside Nemanja Matic in the center of midfield, in a more reserved role, or if he lines up right behind Drogba as a number 10, looking to put more pressure on the inexperienced elements of United's squad.
Chelsea have shown that they have no problem giving the ball away, sitting back, and patiently waiting for a chance to strike. They know they can defend well, and that rushing forward on the counter suits their personnel. United, on the other hand, seems well destined to play into their hands by constantly pushing forward, looking for that big win that will get their season on track.
Will van Gaal bring back the midfield diamond? If 19 year-old Paddy McNair is healthy, will van Gaal reward him for his excellent showings at home against West Ham and Everton by reinstating him in the starting lineup, or will the more experienced Phil Jones keep his place? Will Diego Costa make a miraculous appearance for Chelsea? Will the Special One park the bus and pick United apart on the counter? Will it be 2005 all over again?
Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing is certain: after Sunday we'll surely know just how good Manchester United is. There is nowhere to hide when a team like Chelsea comes knocking.
West Ham v. Manchester City (Saturday, October 25th - 7:45 AM ET, NBCSN)
West Ham finished last season in 13th place, just 7 points clear of relegation. Their 40 goals were only better than the totals of 5 other teams.
This season, with a completely new front line, they can be found occupying the fourth spot of the standings, and only 3 teams have scored more goals than they have. To say it's been a remarkable turnaround would be an understatement.
By securing the services of Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia, West Ham have improbably gained one of the most exciting striker pairings in the whole league. The Senegalese Sakho came from French side Metz, while Valencia came from the Mexican league after three very good performances for Ecuador at the World Cup. Playing both of them together at all times, along with the employment of a midfield diamond full of industry and creativity behind them, has resulted in this fantastic start to the campaign.
However, Manchester City presents a stiff challenge for the upstarts. Last week I wondered if City would finally lay off the snooze button and start playing to the level one expects of such a talented squad. Turns out they did (though Spurs were a missed penalty kick away from tying the game at 2-2 before collapsing in the end), all the way to a 2-0 lead away to CSKA Moscow in yet another crucial Champions League match.
And then, things went south a bit.
Still, City will travel to Upton Park with the hope that with a good result there, and some help from their Manchester neighbors, the 5 point gap with leaders Chelsea will shrink. After all, Sergio Agüero doesn't seem able to stop scoring, and West Ham have only taken a solitary point out of the last six league matches against the Premier League champions. In fact, West Ham managed to lose four times to City last year – twice in the league, and twice in the League Cup.
And yet, this year's Hammers are quite a different outfit than last year's sorry version. Should City be unable to shake off their Moscow hangover, Sakho and Valencia will be looking to pounce.