Rafa Benitez and his Chelsea team welcome Premier League Champions-elect Manchester United to Stamford Bridge this Monday lunchtime for their FA Cup quarter final replay after an exciting 2-2 draw at Old Trafford two and a half weeks ago.
In that first encounter, United flew out of the blocks and established a 2-0 lead within 12 minutes, only for Benitez to show the complaining Chelsea fans he did in fact know what he was doing despite their protestations to the contrary, subbing as he did Eden Hazard on for Victor Moses, shuffling his pack a bit and securing a very creditable draw at Old Trafford to take back to London.
Hazard led the fightback with the first Chelsea goal in that game, a wonderful curling effort beyond David De Gea and into the far corner. With Jon Obi Mikel entering the fray for Frank Lampard and offering a platform in front of the defence that Chelsea could really build from, it was only a matter of time before the lung-busting Ramires added an equaliser, something that looked highly unlikely before Benitez's changes.
It's hard to imagine United being allowed to start so positively in the replay on Chelsea's turf, however. Despite the ugly scenes that have permeated throughout the stands at Stamford Bridge around their interim manager, the Blues' record remains good at home and their recent FA Cup record is even better. They're the most successful FA Cup team since the turn of the century by far, and have won the world's oldest cup competition four times in the last six years.
The situation surrounding the manager's role at Chelsea is likely to factor in to this game, given that Benitez knows he'll only be in the position short-term. This means he's much more likely to want to lift a cup than bother setting foundations for the future, and so, with Chelsea completely out of the race for the title he'll be focused on the FA Cup and the Europa League.
This tie has turned into one of huge importance for United and Alex Ferguson also though. Since the first game, he's seen his side dumped out of the Champions League at Real Madrid and will now be concentrating on a rare double having all but sewn up the Premier League title. The FA Cup is the one area you could argue that United have underachieved in recently, and they haven't won it since 2004. In fact, there are several senior players in United's side that have never tasted victory in this competition: Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney all have it missing from their respective CVs.
The market has Chelsea down as slight favourites at 2.546/4 and United are available to win in 90 minutes at 2.9215/8, which looks very generous. United have conceded three goals in their last ten league games and none in their last five. They're pumped and motivated to win this competition, and for those two reasons it's very hard to bet against them. I like United to qualify at 2.0421/20, because it may take more than the regulation 90 minutes to separate these two.
There's a third reason why I won't be betting against United as well, however. If it the game doesn't go absolutely to plan for Chelsea, Stamford Bridge can turn into a very negative place extremely quickly. The fans of course have every right to make their feelings known, but regardless of your opinion it simply has to be conceded that it doesn't help the team. If Benitez puts a foot wrong, he'll be hammered from all sides and that can spread like wildfire throughout the players and team. United will be well aware of this and looking to capitalise on it.
Back United to qualify at 2.0621/20