Azpilicueta performance key in clash with United’s band of Spanish schemers

You do not need to have seen much of Manchester United recently to know that they have been causing opponents plenty of problems down thei...

You do not need to have seen much of Manchester United recently to know that they have been causing opponents plenty of problems down their right-hand side, with Premier League betting markets acknowledging as much with the ever-shortening of their odds to finish inside the top four.

Ex-Chelsea man Juan Mata has been in sparkling form – something close to that which made him a firm fans’ favourite at Stamford Bridge but not always a popular choice with those charged with the task of piecing together starting XIs.

In tandem with fellow Spaniard Ander Herrera on his inside, and the buccaneering Antonio Valencia behind him, Mata has rediscovered that ability to make telling contributions in big games, at important times.

His form will have been noted by Jose Mourinho and plans will be pieced together to try and counter that threat

Nemanja Matic will have an important role to play in the middle of the park, with it vital that he gets in and around Herrera and Michael Carrick, while drifting out to the left to provide important cover.

Eden Hazard will also need to be at his all-action best as this is no weekend for passengers.

He will need to keep a close eye on Valencia bombing past him down the flank, with tracking back to double up on the overlap as important as pushing United’s Ecuadorian full-back onto the defensive.

It could, however, be Cesar Azpilicueta who has the most difficult job to do on Saturday.

His saving grace, as a right-footed full-back on the left, could be that Mata’s natural instinct, which normally serves him well against more natural left-backs, will be to come inside.

That will push him onto Azpilicueta’s right and into an area of traffic that should be dominated by Matic, Gary Cahill, John Terry and company.

But there is no getting away from the fact that Chelsea’s Spanish defender will need to be as reliable as ever if he is to keep his fellow countrymen in red quiet.

Mata, hardly an out-and-out winger, will look to get around and behind him, with Herrera constantly looking in that direction for a looping pass over the top or threaded down the channels.

If Azpilicueta does not get the required support from those alongside and in front of him, it will be a long evening at the Bridge.

Chelsea, of course, will be looking to pose a considerable threat of their own but – with the frontline still short of numbers and Didier Drogba’s record against the Red Devils not the best – this could be another containing job, similar to the dogged display put in against Queens Park Rangers.

They obviously know all about Mata and what he is capable of, but this is a different version of the World Cup winner to the one they helped to shape, while Herrera played no part in the reverse fixture between the two sides back in October at Old Trafford.

The Blues are, however, aware of the supply line they need to cut off. Mourinho – set to face his one-time mentor at Barcelona, Louis van Gaal, once again – will have drilled into his side the need to frustrate an in-form outfit. United are flying off the back of a derby destruction of Manchester City and Chelsea will need to press as a pack going both forwards and backwards.

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