Manchester United v Chelsea
Sunday 19 July, 18:00
Live on BBC One
Resurgent United quickening the pulse
As the old Dorothy Norwood gospel classic tells us, there's gotta be rain in your life for you to appreciate the sunshine. Manchester United fans have endured a fair few showers since the Red Devils last lifted the Premier League trophy, but there are rays of sunshine breaking through. The 31-point gap between United and newly-crowned champions Liverpool can't be ignored or dismissed, and a place in next season's Champions League is far from secure, but even manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's most consistent critics would struggle to dismiss the club's recent progress.
United have put together a 19-match unbeaten run in all competitions, and they have won 14 of those games. They have won five of their last six top-flight matches, and are trading at 1.292/7 in the Premier League Top 4 market, even though they are currently fifth by virtue of goal difference. They have scored at least twice in 11 of their last 14 outings, they have been given a kind draw in the Europa League, and they are two positive results away from winning their first FA Cup since 2016.
Unsurprisingly, the dynamic Bruno Fernandes has hit the ground running, contributing seven goals and seven assists in 12 Premier League appearances.
In all competitions for United and Sporting this term, he has scored 21 goals and set up a further 18. In attack, Anthony Martial netted a hat-trick against Sheffield United in late June, and has scored in three of his last four appearances. 18-year-old United youth product Mason Greenwood has netted four goals in his last five appearances, and his eye-catching displays may have an impact on the club's short-term transfer policy.
There's an issue for United at left-back, as Luke Shaw and Brandon Williams are racing against time to be fit. Sergio Romero has been United's cup keeper, and is likely to start, while former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic could return after he was rested for the win at Crystal Palace. Solskjaer has insisted that the crowded fixture schedule isn't a concern, but it remains to be seen whether he will select his strongest team here.
Bramall Lane beating a reminder of Chelsea's frailty
With an experienced manager at the helm trying to bring through some inexperienced players, it's tempting to paint Chelsea as plucky outsiders or underdogs, and Frank Lampard has suggested that no-one expected his team to finish in the Champions League spots this term. The Blues are currently third, but their final two Premier League games are at Liverpool and at home to Wolves, so UCL qualification is by no means assured. The recent 3-0 shredding at Sheffield United exposed the team's defensive fragility, and it could be a defeat that proves incredibly costly.
However, no-one should reach for the violin on Chelsea's behalf. The Blues still have one of the world's best defensive midfielders in N'Golo Kante, they can call upon proven Premier League performers like Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta and Olivier Giroud and their £57 million signing Christian Pulisic has been on outstanding form. Lampard will be given latitude because he is developing young talent and is rightly a Chelsea legend, but missing out on a top-four spot and failing to win a trophy would be at best a disappointment.
While Chelsea can be thrilling in attack, their defending often leaves plenty to be desired. They have conceded the most goals of any team in the Premier League's top half, and in the top 12 only Everton have conceded more often away from home. That department won't be helped by the loss of Kante to injury, and there's no-one who quite has the French international's skill-set when it comes to breaking up play and screening the back four.
Back United to reach the final
United are the 2.56/4 favourites to win inside 90 minutes, and I can see why. They have beaten Chelsea three times already this season, 4-0 and 2-0 in the Premier League and 2-1 in the League Cup. They have put together their most consistent run of results for a long time, and are attacking with pace and precision.
Chelsea are a very good side, but the absence of Kante is a bitter blow, and I wonder whether their defence is capable of shackling United's freewheeling attack. The Blues have conceded at least twice in five of their last seven games outside Stamford Bridge.
You could back United to win outright in 90 minutes at 2.56/4, but I'll instead take a more conservative approach and back them To Qualify at 1.794/5. That means that if the semi-final goes to extra-time, you still win if United either win in the extra half-hour or triumph on penalties.
Don't expect to see the handbrake on
Both of these teams like to play on the front foot, and although this is a huge game, I doubt either manager will compromise those principles. 14 of Chelsea's last 19 games have featured at least three goals, including seven of the last eight away from Stamford Bridge.
Nine of United's last 14 games have seen an Over 2.5 Goals bet land, and they have scored at least twice in all three meetings with Chelsea this term. I think Over 2.5 Goals is attractively priced here at 1.981/1.
Court the idea of backing Martial to score
Anthony Martial scored in both Premier League meetings with Chelsea this season, and is in good form generally. Keep an eye on the team news, and if he starts, I would back him to score at 8/5 on the Sportsbook. Bruno Fernandes also seems too big a price at 12/5.
On the Chelsea side of things, Lampard is yet to settle on a first-choice centre-forward, but Christian Pulisic has scored in three of his last eight games, and is 10/3 to score.