Manchester United are once again getting used to cup finals. Excluding the Community Shield, Saturday will be United’s 4th final appearance in 3 seasons, following their victories in the FA Cup 2 years ago (Louis Van Gaal’s last match for the club), and the silverware Mourinho collected last season with the EFL cup and the Europa League success. No disrespect to the opponents in those games, but it’s certain Chelsea will pose a much bigger threat than Crystal Palace, Southampton and Ajax were able to muster.
The Europa League victory last year was particularly important, as it allowed United a coveted route back into the Champions League, but this weekend’s match is no less significant. It’s been a strange season. Mourinho has dragged his team up from 6th to 2nd place in the league, but there’s been a shift in the fans’ view of him. Many are losing faith in the man who was supposed to propel United back to the top of the table. Finishing the season in 2nd place, and with the FA Cup secured, puts a much-needed shine on a disjointed campaign. Lose to his old club, however, and the pessimism and negativity that surrounds Mourinho will continue to deepen.
It’s been clear for the last few weeks that United have had this match in their minds. The recent Premiership games have been almost testimonial, infused with such with little urgency, desire, or motivation that it’s felt like a chore to sit through them. Mourinho may have publicly lamented the performances, citing his desire for his team to work harder in these matches, but the truth is United’s position in the Premiership has been established for some time, and the team have been treading water, waiting for the season to finish. United have ended the season in second place, with 81 points. It’s a good return, but the only match that matters now is the final, although Chelsea will comfortably match United’s desperation to win.
After their commanding season in 2016-17, when they won the league by 7 points with an impressive 93 point total, It’s been a dire year for the club, and, in particular, Antonio Conte. A serial winner in Italy, he enjoyed an incredible first season in English football, but this year has been poor, failing to even finish in the top four. There’s substantial rumours that Conte will be leaving this summer, and it would be no surprise – Abramovich has an itchy trigger-finger, and short-termism is the preference at Stamford Bridge. Either way, Conte will be desperate to win, either to somehow retain his job, or at least leave on a high.
In the league this season, the spoils were shared between the two clubs, both teams winning their respective home fixture. It will be the most recent game that will give Mourinho hope; an assured, confident 2-1 victory in February, despite going a goal behind, and ceding the majority of possession. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him select similar tactics once again.
The line-up will likely be very similar. Valencia and Young will be the full-backs, and with the aerial threat of Giroud (who often performed well against United for Arsenal, particularly in the latter stages of games), Smalling will likely get selected, plus he seems to be first choice for Mourinho at the moment. Bailly’s recent absence from the team was dumbfounding and nonsensical, but his solid performance against Watford should ensure he retains his place. However, Phil Jones may get the nod instead, providing he manages not to pick up an injury in the next few days, which would be something of an achievement in itself.
Mourinho used a 3 man midfield against Chelsea in February, and that has become his preferred formation in recent matches too. Pogba and Matic will be included, but Herrera should get selected instead of McTominay, despite McTominay’s excellent performance in that game, especially his shepherding of Eden Hazard. Keeping the Belgian quiet will be crucial once more, but Herrera relishes that role, supplying the degree of tenacity and bite to the role that Hazard will loathe. Chelsea have other threats, of course, and Willian or Pedro can be dangerous, but if United can stifle Hazard, it will eliminate a significant part of Chelsea’s attack.
Up front, Lingard and Sanchez will likely be selected in the wide roles, considering Mourinho’s disparaging comments about Rashford and Martial recently. It would be good to see Mata having a bigger role, as he offers a subtlety and rhythm to United’s attack, but he seems to have fallen out of favour again for the bigger matches. Whether Lukaku will be fit is unclear, but with the World Cup approaching, he’s less likely to be risked. If that is the case, then Rashford will lead the attack.
It will be a close, tactical match, with few surprises, the sort of contest where the difference may come from one individual’s performance on the big stage. Chelsea will be relying on Hazard and Willian in that regard. It’s where United may hold the upper hand, though – they possess more players who can produce that special moment. It would be rewarding to see Rashford finish the season in style, but it was Pogba and Sanchez who excelled in the semi-final, and it may just be the perfect stage for them do it again.