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Key Battles: Eric Bailly against Eden Hazard could go a long way in United beating Chelsea

Manchester United will be pitted against Premier League champions elect Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon. It will be the third time the two sides have met this season with Chelsea winning the match at Stamford Bridge in the league 4-0 back in October 2016 and again winning 1-0 in the Emirates FA Cup match, again at their home last month. This time, much like the last time, United will need to be ready for Antonio Conte’s side, who will be looking to retain their seven-point lead at the top of the league, which could be eight or ten if Tottenham Hotspur draws or lose to Bournemouth in the first kick-off this weekend. United suffered in the FA Cup last month after Ander Herrera was sent off, somewhat unfairly, but if they keep their heads and play 90 minutes, in the same way, that could well change with United even winning, which would be a great result at this stage of the season. The key battles in the battle of Old Trafford could look like this;

Zlatan Ibrahimovic -v- Gary Cahill

Second time lucky for Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Antonio Conte’s men this weekend. In the 4-0 defeat back in October, the Swede played 90 minutes but failed to shine for Jose Mourinho’s team, in fact, none of United’s players looked good that day. Zlatan had four shots on goal, one of those on target, which was poor form for the 28-goal striker this season. The Swedish veteran striker still has it in him to play in a top league, which has been shown time after time this season, but in the big matches, Zlatan still needs to show his class. Scoring against Chelsea will improve United’s chances of a top-four finish this season, which will still be tough to achieve, but will benefit his side, which he may not be part of from the summer. Gary Cahill has been a rock in Chelsea’s defence partnered with David Luiz and playing in a three-man back four. Cahill has scored six times this season, but that is not what defines him and Chelsea’s defence, it is his ability on his man and on the ball which will see him as the stronger contender to thwart Ibrahimovic. Cahill averages seven defensive actions per Premier League match, with only two defensive errors in total this season. His passing is great at 88%, too.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan -v- Marcos Alonso

Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored his ninth goal of the season against Anderlecht on Thursday evening, nothing like the form he showed in the Bundesliga last season, but a good start in a tougher league, especially as he did not feature for United for nearly two months from the 10th September to the 3rd November 2016, partly down to injury. Mkhitaryan has featured 18 times for United in the Premier League this season, scoring four goals in total. He has created 27 chances, has a 65% shot accuracy and an 84% pass success rate. The Armenian averages two defensive actions per match in the league, which shows his strengths do not just end as an attacking player. Marcos Alonso, the left-wing back in Chelsea’s formation this season, may have his work cut out if Mkhitaryan plays on the right, rather than through the middle. Alonso has a poorer pass success rate of 77% in the league, averages five defensive actions per match and has made one error this season. Alonso is more of an attacking outlet, which Chelsea’s attack standing in as their defence the majority of the time. This could be a battle which helps define the match, especially if Mkhitaryan is on the ball.

Eric Bailly -v- Eden Hazard

Eric Bailly turned 23 this week and considering his start in the Premier League, at the age defenders normally peak (27), he could be some player. The Ivorian has been the stand-out player in defence, playing well the majority of the time, but has had a few bad games, also missing a period through participation in the African Cup of Nations, although that was not a success for his home nation. Bailly has made 18 appearances in the Premier League this season, averaging nine defensive actions per match and is yet to suffer an error, in the league at least. Bailly is an attacking outlet, not the best, but he does help his side when he can. He has created one chance this season. Having a good passer at the back could well be a strong point for United, at 89% pass success, Bailly is just that. He will need to be at the top of his game to combat an in-form Eden Hazard, who has scored against United twice this season already. The Belgian has scored 14 goals in 29 appearances in the league this season, having a 61% shot accuracy with an 84% pass success rate. Diego Costa will be a big threat for Bailly also, but Hazard will be the player to stop and Antonio Valencia can help out there with his pace, ability on the ball and his physicality on the ball.

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