Chelsea-United an early title race test

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Chelsea's Fernando Torres competes with Manchester United's Antonio Valencia. AP Photo/Sang Tan

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The Premier League season is not even a quarter of the way through yet, but the title race should look a whole lot clearer after Sunday’s heavyweight bout between Chelsea and Manchester United.

There is so much intrigue surrounding what is the clear pick out of this week’s round of matches. 

Most of it surrounds the implications of a fairly damning statistic that speaks to not only United’s defensive frailties, but their ability to actually control a full game.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have fallen behind eight times in 12 games this season. 

It’s a startling little factoid, and it would be even worse were it not for the club’s innate ability to claw back from nowhere and steal points they have no business stealing.

An attacking armoury featuring Robin van Persie, a fit-and-firing-again Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernandez et al. also helps, but the alarm bells start to ring when a team starts depending on scoring more goals than the opposition to win.

Goals win games, as they say, but clean sheets win titles. Across all competitions, they only have three of those. Clean sheets, that is. Not titles.

Why is this? Not even their mastermind of a manager knows exactly. But Sir Alex has resolved to figure it out, somehow, even if he can’t quite put his finger on the cause.

Personnel is clearly an issue, with Nemanja Vidic, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling all out injured. 

Patrice Evra is not exactly in a rich vein of form, either, while Rio Ferdinand can be forgiven for being a trifle distracted with his brave and important side-project – to eradicate racist discrimination from football.

This shortage left fish-out-of-water Michael Carrick to partner Jonny Evans in the centre of defence against Braga in mid-week Champions League action. 

The Portuguese side then scored within 80 seconds of the first whistle.

Chelsea, with their muddled ensemble of creative outlets and playmakers, should be licking their collective lips at the prospect of a shaky and undermanned United rearguard, especially at Stamford Bridge.

This one does loom as a goalfest, but at both ends. After all, the current Premier League leaders are not without issues of their own in the back half.

Against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine, Chelsea were comprehensively outplayed. It would have been far worse than 2-1 had Petr Cech not turned in a brilliant display in the goalmouth.

Roberto Di Matteo is leaning more and more on his trio of artists, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar. 

It therefore stands to reason that they’ll lose a little steel and organisation in midfield when you give players like that the license to run about, shackle-free.

While their domestic form has them top of the table and unbeaten, Chelsea will be asking for trouble if these gaps are left open for a Manchester United side that relishes playing on the break.

Regardless of what unfolds, you can almost certainly count on either van Persie or Rooney to make the back of the net bulge in any given match.

The question is who wins out in this one? Whose problems prove more problematic on the day? Who can exploit them best? This writer can’t wait to find out. 

Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard of the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. A Port Adelaide fan by birth, he now is a sports reporter for The Cairns Post.
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