Needing just the one point to guarantee Champions League football for the 2023-24 season, Manchester United’s final Premier League home game of the season takes place on Thursday, as Chelsea make the trek to Old Trafford.
The Red Devils are on the brink of sealing a top-four finish thanks to their 1-0 win over Bournemouth last weekend, while the mid-table Blues lost by the same scoreline to newly-crowned champions Manchester City.
While one Brazilian in Roberto Firmino managed to keep Liverpool’s Champions League hopes alive in the Reds’ draw with Aston Villa, his compatriot Casemiro came up with a moment of individual brilliance to keep Man United in the driving seat for a top-four finish at the Vitality Stadium.
The midfielder’s stunning bicycle kick settled an otherwise low-key affair on the South Coast, during which David de Gea – for all the criticism he has received this season – posted a 17th league clean sheet of the season to collect the Golden Glove, and Erik ten Hag is on the verge of achieving his overriding goal in his debut season at Old Trafford.
Sitting three points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand, the fourth-placed Red Devils will assure themselves of a place in next season’s Champions League – where Manchester City, Arsenal and Newcastle United will also be present – should they avoid defeat on Thursday night, but they will get a second bite of the cherry against Fulham on Sunday if they fall short here.
Ten Hag will no doubt aim to wrap up a top-four finish on Thursday before attention turns to their FA Cup final date with bitter rivals Manchester City, and despite a few frailties on the road, Man United have been the toughest nut to crack at home in the current Premier League season.
Indeed, the Red Devils have conceded just eight times at the Theatre of Dreams in the 2022-23 top flight – winning each of their last four without shipping a goal and keeping clean sheets in each of their last six – which certainly does not make for pleasant reading for a goal-shy Chelsea crop.
With Arsenal’s defeat to Nottingham Forest on Saturday confirming Man City’s status as champions, Pep Guardiola sent out a second-string team onto the field to meet Chelsea, but Frank Lampard’s injury-hit charges could not spoil the Citizens’ celebrations.
A 12th-minute strike from Julian Alvarez was all it took to separate the two sides on the day, and while Man City had to survive a few scares along the way, the champions celebrated their coronation in the right way – handing Lampard his seventh defeat from nine games in charge of the Blues.
Nevertheless, Lampard was able to cut an upbeat figure after the game as he hailed signs of progress from his Chelsea side, but progress did not translate into points, and the Blues enter Thursday’s game languishing in 12th place in the table and still at risk of being demoted to as low as 14th in their final two fixtures.
Chelsea can only finish a troubled campaign as high as 11th – a spot currently occupied by Crystal Palace, who have a one-point lead having played a game more – and any hopes the London club have of redemption on Manchester soil will not be helped by a meagre record of just two wins from their last 13 Premier League away games.
However, each of the last five meetings between Man United and Chelsea has remarkably ended level, with October’s clash at Stamford Bridge ending 1-1 for the third time in a row, and not since the pre-COVID days of February 2020 have the Red Devils actually beaten the Blues, but a sixth stalemate in a row would be enough for Ten Hag’s men to dine at Europe’s top table.
As well as their known plethora of absentees, Man United were forced to cope without Marcus Rashford for the second week running against Bournemouth; the Englishman missed out against Wolverhampton Wanderers with a leg injury before coming down with a bug.
Rashford is expected to fight off his illness in time to start at Old Trafford, but all of Lisandro Martinez (foot), Tom Heaton (ankle), Donny van de Beek (knee), Marcel Sabitzer (knee) and the departing Phil Jones (knee) will watch on from the sidelines.
With Rashford fit and firing, Anthony Martial will be expected to make way after his sour reaction to being substituted against Bournemouth – which Ten Hag played down after the game – and the Red Devils head coach should name his strongest lineup on Thursday before potentially resting players against Fulham if their top-four spot is rubber-stamped.
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s perennial injury problems are not letting up as the season draws to a close, as the Blues have suffered a devastating blow with defender Benoit Badiashile, who could supposedly be facing a few months out with a groin problem sustained in training last week.
Mason Mount (pelvic), Ben Chilwell (thigh), Armando Broja (knee), N’Golo Kante (groin), Marc Cucurella (thigh), Marcus Bettinelli (unspecified) and Reece James (thigh) also take up beds in the well-occupied Chelsea treatment room, while Mateo Kovacic remains out with an unspecified issue of his own. On a brighter note, Kalidou Koulibaly was fit enough to come off the bench on Sunday following a thigh issue, and Joao Felix is back from a minor concern.
Having been left relatively satisfied with his side’s display at the Etihad, Lampard may want to keep changes to a minimum, but Carney Chukwuemeka will no doubt be pushing for a starting role after he was blocked from joining up with the England squad for the Under-20 World Cup.
Manchester United possible starting lineup:
De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Lindelof, Shaw; Casemiro, Eriksen; Antony, Fernandes, Sancho; Rashford
Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Kepa; Chalobah, Silva, Fofana; Azpilicueta, Fernandez, Loftus-Cheek, Hall; Gallagher; Havertz, Sterling