Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Champions League: All signs point to revenge for Chelsea over Manchester United

Who better than the best player on the planet to assess whom we should favour as Chelsea and Manchester United prepare to resume a European battle last decided by a game of Russian roulette in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, nearly three years ago?

“Barcelona, Madrid and Chelsea are the favourites for the Champions League,” Lionel Messi said before the quarter-final draw.

That the bookmakers should have agreed with him confirms the lingering suspicion that United are just not the team they were when they won the penalty shoot-out in the 2008 Champions League final and that, for all the thrilling comebacks that have characterised their past eight months, their number will be up when they reach the highest plateau of the season so far.

The numbers certainly do tell a story. Since the night Chelsea trudged away so disconsolately from the Luzhniki pitch, they have invested £126.1m on players, while at £75.9m United's outlay is around 40 per cent less.

Even Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledged, four days ago, that Chelsea are the ones spending for Europe.

Chelsea now look by far the more dominant force, whichever way you size it up.

Ryan Giggs at left-back might have been a quaintly effective sight at Upton Park but it won't do at Stamford Bridge, with United's defensive injury problems looking chronic.

The absences of Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Rafael da Silva may expose Rafael's twin, Fabio, to the task of marking Ramires, while Chris Smalling faces the rapier pace of Torres or Drogba.

The doubts about United's midfield are even more persistent.

Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes may well be asked to run it, just as on May 21, 2008 in Moscow, but the poise of their display together in the first half of their league game away to Chelsea on March 1 did not really tell the story of United's season.

In the second period Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Ramires drove Ancelotti's side on to their 2-1 win. Both Vidic and Carrick admitted that such a recent league victory for Chelsea on home soil could be psychologically significant.

“Maybe, in terms of the results, it is,” Vidic said. “In the last few games, they had good results [against us] so yes; it helps [them].”

In the five games between the sides since Moscow, United have won only once — the 3-0 victory days before Luiz Felipe Scolari's sacking early in 2009. “We've actually played all right at times but it doesn't count for anything, it's all about results,” Carrick said.

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