Man Utd vs Chelsea has feel of a Europa Conference League six-pointer – these once great sides after fighting for scraps

ON several occasions over a six-year period, it felt as if Mauricio Pochettino’s destiny was to manage Manchester United.

From lunch with Sir Alex Ferguson in 2016, to an unofficial interview for the job early last year and at many points in between, the Argentinian was billed as the man to make sense of the Old Trafford madhouse.

EPAManchester United have struggled this season[/caption]

GettyChelsea have also failed to find consistency[/caption]

Instead, Pochettino ended up in charge of a different basket case, taking over Chelsea’s billionaire boys’ club this summer.

Wednesday night, he heads to Old Trafford for the Premier League’s ‘dysfunctional derby’, as two once-mighty, still-minted clubs scrabble for scraps while a thrilling three-horse title race is staged without either of them coming remotely close to joining in.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City are streets ahead of Chelsea and United, while Aston Villa, Newcastle and Tottenham should all remain above them too.

When the Premier League’s two great dictators — Sir Alex and Roman Abramovich — were at the height of their powers, United v Chelsea was English football’s supreme fixture, including a  Champions League final in Moscow in 2008.

But with the clubs in a state of flux, Wednesday’s match feels like a Europa Conference League qualification six-pointer.

One relief for Erik ten Hag is that Pochettino, his chief rival for the United job, is hardly thriving at Stamford Bridge and no longer widely regarded as the ‘King Across the Water’.

Both men were interviewed by United last year and Ten Hag was said to have made the more impressive case.

Not that PowerPoint presentations are ever a great indication of how a manager will perform — especially in a dressing room as volatile as United’s.

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It is believed United wanted Pochettino to quit Paris Saint Germain last year so they could avoid paying compensation — a naive suggestion in the modern era.

When it came to the crunch, neither United nor Poch were bothered enough to force the issue and Ten Hag was the beneficiary.

But would Pochettino have done any better in sorting out such a crackpot club?

Look at the league table, with Chelsea five points and three places beneath United in tenth and there’s nothing to suggest it.

And Ten Hag’s first season was a qualified success — a third-place finish, two cup finals, a first trophy in six years and the eviction of Cristiano Ronaldo left him in significant credit.

But a glance at Saturday’s defeat at Newcastle, where the Dutchman’s side were battered and seriously flattered by a 1-0 defeat, provided glaring evidence of a team who are not united behind their manager.

It left the Red Devils with a record against top-half clubs which reads — played six, lost six.

Added to a shambolic Champions League campaign, this represents the club’s lowest point in more than 30 years.

GettyMauricio Pochettino was expected to manage Man United at one point[/caption]

Alan Shearer, Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher led the predictable criticism of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial seemingly downing tools and not without some credence.

Yet the idea of players sulking and coasting has rarely, if ever, been mooted about a Pochettino team.
If anything, his Chelsea boys appear to be trying too hard.

In successive weekends, Reece James and Conor Gallagher have been sent off for two yellow cards while wearing the captain’s armband.

Not great but less likely to risk the wrath of the punditry community than throwing your arms up in the air and refusing to track back.

The Chelsea ‘project’ of signing almost exclusively young players on long contracts may well be flawed but at least it is a discernible project and they do have a manager with a track record of building a successful, youthful Premier League team at Spurs.

Players tend to love playing for Pochettino — a former Argentina centre-half, a hard man, capable of serious warmth.

Ten Hag, who plays the hard man unconvincingly and struggles with warmth, does not command such widespread loyalty among his squad.

AlamyErik ten Hag is under pressure at Man United[/caption]

United’s summer business is proving disastrous — a striker, Rasmus Hojlund, who hasn’t scored a single Premier League goal, a keeper, Andre Onana, who is becoming a punchline and a midfielder, Mason Mount, currently injured again and stuck in a long-term fug.

Some of Chelsea’s signings in the £1billion splurge under Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali are showing promise but overall performances are maddeningly inconsistent.

The Blues are capable of winning or losing against anyone in the Premier League — the polar opposite of United, who always beat the poor teams and lose to the good ones.

Nobody knows which category Chelsea fit into yet, so there will be intrigue among the chaos on Wednesday.

And if Pochettino pulls off a victory, United will wonder what might have been under the man who got away.

GOALDEN TIMES

ReutersAlejandro Garnacho scored a spectacular overhead kick against Everton[/caption]

NO surprise that Alejandro Garnacho scored a landslide victory in Match of the Day’s Goal-of-the-Month vote for his sublime bicycle kick at Goodison Park.

But November efforts from Pablo Sarabia of Wolves, Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise and West Ham’s Mohammed Kudus might all have won Goal of the Season in other years.

And December’s competition should also be half-decent, given that Liverpool produced three top-notch contenders in one match, the seven-goal thriller against Fulham on Sunday.

GREAL PACE

GettyMan City stars were fuming at Simon Hooper to stop play against Tottenham[/caption]

THERE’S one point worth making about ‘Advantage-gate’ at the Etihad on Sunday.

Jack  Grealish, still a long way from goal and not blessed with exceptional pace, probably wouldn’t have scored an injury-time winner, even if blundering ref Simon Hooper had allowed play to continue.

OWEN NOT ALONE

GettyOwen Farrell is taking a break from international rugby[/caption]

THERE should be little surprise that England captain Owen Farrell is taking a break from international rugby to prioritise the wellbeing of himself and his family — especially given the fearful stick he has consistently received.

After all, England’s cricket skipper Ben Stokes took a similar break in 2021.

Elite modern sportsmen have very little chance to escape from pressure in an age when ultra-professionalism is demanded and the spotlight is constant.

The only wonder is that more do not take the same approach.

WEAR CHEER

GettyNewcastle were bought by PIF[/caption]

THERE hasn’t been a Tyne-Wear derby in almost eight years and Sunderland are unbeaten in the last nine of them, winning six.

After the Mackems won 3-0 at St James’ Park in 2013,  a result still to be avenged,  a raging Toon fan was jailed for punching a police horse.

Former Sunderland chairman Sir Bob Murray keeps claiming that his club would never have taken Saudi billions — perhaps an easy claim to make until you’ve been offered Saudi billions.

So the third-round draw, which sends the boys from Geordie Arabia to the Stadium of Light is an absolute Grade A belter.
Long live the FA Cup.

IT’S NET FLICKS

GettyAston Villa have been one of the Premier League’s entertainers this season[/caption]

IN case you were wondering which of the six Prem matches to watch on Amazon Prime, I’d recommend Aston Villa v Manchester City.

Why? Because I’ll be there and mayhem is my constant companion.

The last six games I’ve attended are as follows: Tottenham 1 Chelsea 4 (with five disallowed goals, two red cards and extreme VAR lunacy); Copenhagen 4 Manchester United 3; Chelsea 4  Manchester City 4;  Fulham 3 Wolves 2 (with three penalties and extreme VAR lunacy);  Galatasaray 3 Man United 3 and Sunday’s Man City 3 Tottenham 3.

Thirty-seven goals in six games — and that’s not even been the half of it.  

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