If there was one club Manchester United didn't want to be drawn against in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, it was Chelsea. They're not going to admit it. When was the last time Alex Ferguson betrayed fear of anything? But they have to know Chelsea's got something over them. The Blues have won the clubs' last three meetings, each victory more testament to Chelsea will than physical or tactical superiority.
Unfortunately for United, will is the most ethereal of those three qualities. It's also an area where Manchester United is not used to dealing with deficiencies. They're is usually the side with mental edge. When circumstances that rouse blood pressures arise and the best embrace dreams as their opponents entertain failures, the Red Devils are typically the ones finding the late goal, drawing a late penalty, or holding out for an entire match without giving their opponents a sniff of goal.
Though United lost the 2009 final to Barcelona, they showed these qualities two years earlier, knocking Barça out at the semifinals. They were the last team to see Inter Milan out of the tournament and recently posted a record 21-match unbeaten streak in Champions League. And, of course, they beat Chelsea the last two times the teams met in Champions League, though finding hopes on a penalty kick win is no way to exercise a demon.
If any of those previous results effect the upcoming Chelsea-United tie, we can discount what we've seen from the recent, English Premier League versions of this match-up. Champions League is different, we can argue, though for what reasons, we aren't exactly sure.
If Champions League is just another venue where you try to kick a round ball into a rectangle, we're forced to search for reasonx why either of these upcoming matches will be different than the results we've seen over the last year-and-a-half.
After a disappointing Round of 16 elimination last year, Chelsea cruised through group play, a sixth round loss after first place had been secured the only thing keeping the Blues from Champions Leagues' first perfect group stage. In hindsight, the group seems only mildly challenging, with Marseille taking second in the quartet.
In the knockout stage, Chelsea drew the easiest club from the second place pool. As such, Carlo Ancelotti never had to push his team while easing past FC Copenhagen.
Likewise, Manchester United has never had to take the car out of neutral. The Red Devils allowed only one goal in six matches in winning a group that saw Valencia finish second. Against Marseille they allowed their second goal of the competition, a late own goal, progressing after a controlled 2-1 victory.
Manchester United beat Chelsea on penalty kicks in the 2008 final, denying Roman Abramovich his most coveted honor in a match played on the owner's home
soil turf. The next year, the clubs split their Premier League matches. Since, Chelsea has posted 1-0, 2-1, and 2-1 wins, the last a come-from-behind effort. United did win defeat the Blues in the Community Shield in fall of 2010, but as a hint to how seriously the sides took that match, Michael Owen started for United.
Over the course of a league campaign, Manchester United could lose twice to Chelsea and still contend they were the best team in the competition. In Champions League, however, they have to figure out the Blues. Else, they're out.
They have just over two weeks to find a way to get beyond this mental hurdle, though as we sit 19 days away from kick-off at Stamford Bridge, it's difficult to see how they will.
April 6: Chelsea vs. Manchester United, Stamford Bridge
April 12: Manchester United vs. Chelsea, Old Trafford