It may be over a week away, but while managers often like to quote the mantra of taking each game as it comes, there's no doubting Rafa Benitez will have one eye on Chelsea's trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United in the FA Cup on Mar. 10.
It promises to be a fascinating game, played out to a backdrop of differing subplots. There's a place at Wembley via the semifinals up for grabs, while a Chelsea victory will give the Blues added impetus in the closing stages of the season. But above all else, it marks Benitez's return to Old Trafford.
Given the history between the Spaniard and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, he will be desperate to come away with a victory—not only for personal reasons, but also to silence the Chelsea fans who continuously boo and attempt to publicly ridicule him.
Defeat in Manchester and stories of Chelsea's demise will resurface. But win, and suddenly the Blues are well placed for another shot at a major trophy at the expense of Benitez's old foe. He must be relishing the prospect.
As is the case for any side visiting Manchester these days, victory will be easier said than done. But as Benitez seeks inspiration to overcome United, he need look no further than when the sides met in October.
A few days before these bastions of the modern game were involved in a goal fest in the Capital One Cup—with Chelsea eventually winning 5-4—they had locked horns in the Premier League. United came out 3-2 winners, but without Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic seeing red, it could have been much different.
Robin van Persie scored, while he saw another effort deflect in off David Luiz in the opening 12 minutes to give his side a two-goal lead, leaving Chelsea shell shocked. As the game developed, however, so too did the influence of the so-called "Three Amigos" as United struggled to contain Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar.
Plenty has happened on and off the pitch since then, notably with Benitez replacing Roberto Di Matteo in the Blues' dugout. Whereas Benitez has tweaked the side to work more within his image, though, reuniting the club's attacking trio at Old Trafford could well prove a masterstroke.
With defensive solidity in mind, Benitez has used the Mata-Hazard-Oscar combination sparingly during his tenure. In fact, the last time he started all three together in the league, Chelsea put Arsenal to the sword with a 2-1 win at home on Jan. 20.
There's a reason some teams achieve more in the cups than they do the league and letting their inhibitions loose often plays a big part. Without a goal difference or points tally to contend with, a less cautious approach prevails.
With the shackles off, there's no denying the threat the "Three Amigos" will pose United. Coming at Old Trafford, it would be a bold move, sure, but Chelsea have shown enough this term to prove that, in a one-off scenario, they are capable of beating most teams—United included.
Trailing 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in October, Di Matteo had no choice but allow the trio more freedom in attack and they got their reward, pulling the game level before red cards ultimate proved the difference.
This FA Cup clash starts goalless, of course, but knowing what they have already done to United, Benitez shouldn't overlook how devastating that Mata-Hazard-Oscar combination can truly be.
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