Manchester United head into their heavyweight meeting with Chelsea still needing to convince that they would be worthy Premier League champions.
Manchester United aim to prove their worth
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Sometimes a team's right to be win the league is indisputable. So it was, when 11 months ago, Chelsea went to Old Trafford, defeated the defending champions and put themselves in pole position to claim the crown.
Sometimes, however, a team's legitimacy as leaders is questioned. So it is for Manchester United. The league table asserts that they are England's dominant team, but they are yet to make such a defining statement of their credentials.
An almost immaculate home record has not camouflaged their imperfections on their travels. They have been damned with faint praise, not described in glowing terms, seen as a utilitarian side who maximise their returns in less demanding games.
Stoke City are the highest-placed team United have overcome away from home so far. A week that takes them to Chelsea and then Liverpool provides them with the opportunity to change that. This is their chance to both emulate Carlo Ancelotti's team and exact revenge upon them. If the Premier League trophy is not concealed in their luggage on the return journey north, a seven-point lead would make its destination clear.
A win would cut through the bluster from Chelsea's captain and reiterate a criticism Sir Alex Ferguson voiced 18 months ago. John Terry may be a lone voice in proclaiming that his side can still win the title, but even he may have to accept the improbability of it should the Londoners trail United by 18 points.
At the start of last season, Ferguson deemed Chelsea too old. He pensioned them off too early, but now his diagnosis appears correct, even though Edwin van der Sar, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are several years the senior of any of Ancelotti's charges.
Yet United can ally experience with youth and are rarities in allying transition with trophies and while the 40-year-old Van der Sar excelled in Saturday's 4-0 win at Wigan Athletic, the 21-year-old Chris Smalling deputised seamlessly for Rio Ferdinand.
The newcomer faces the most demanding test of his career against the probable partnership of Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres.
The latter's quest for his first Chelsea career goal continues against the side he scythed apart on two of his most memorable performances for Liverpool.
Yet while the composition of the Chelsea attack has dominated debate for the past month, the United forward line could have been subjected to disruption.
Instead, the English Football Association's decision not to charge Wayne Rooney for his elbow on the Wigan midfielder James McCarthy ensures his availability. Such last-minute rethinks as Ferguson conducts will relate to Giggs's fitness, not Rooney's availability. The knock-on effect may be a place on the bench for Dimitar Berbatov.
While Ancelotti successfully held Didier Drogba in reserve 11 months ago, when the Ivorian was introduced to provide the goal that ultimately delivered the title, this is less a psychological ploy than systemic caution.
United have manoeuvred themselves into a position where they do not have to win tonight, but the desire for a third central midfielder highlights the fondness for an insurance policy.
As United aim to displace Chelsea as champions, it is also a role reversal tactically: Ferguson has long been associated with 4-4-2, though he has become more flexible in his formations in recent years. Chelsea, meanwhile, have struggled to wean themselves off 4-3-3 but played with a quartet in midfield during last Tuesday's Champions League win over Copenhagen.
With Torres in attack and Ramires on the right wing, April 2010 seems a long time ago for Chelsea. Yet no matter how swift their fall from grace, they proved themselves worthy champions.
For Ferguson, who craves a moral authority almost as much as silverware itself, winning that tag may be harder than claiming the trophy itself. And while a draw would keep United on course, victory would be the assertion of excellence. The crowning glory.
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