Weblog: The football punter

Old Trafford clash could be a nip and tuck battle

Sky Sports Premier League & Main Event, 4.30pm Sunday

Two novice Premier League managers face off in a crunch clash on the opening weekend as Manchester United host Chelsea at Old Trafford and the fear of losing such a heavyweight contest so early in the season could make the draw the best bet.

The goodwill from supporters for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard is obvious given all they did for their respective clubs as players.

Solskjaer scored arguably the most important goal in United's history in the 1999 Champions League final and Lampard is Chelsea's greatest ever goalscorer, but they have much more to prove as managers.

United would never normally go shopping at Molde for their next boss and imagine if Chelsea had gone from Jose Mourinho to Antonio Conte to Maurizio Sarri to any other Derby manager, such as Gary Rowett.

There would rightly have been a meltdown at Stamford Bridge, and yet Rowett and Lampard had pretty similar campaigns in charge of Derby. Football's a funny old game.

Bookmakers struggled to find a favourite when United welcomed Chelsea to Old Trafford on April 28 - it was 7-4 each team at best prices - but there has since been a strong shift towards the hosts which ordinarily would suggest a value bet on the Blues.

That may still turn out to be true, however, this is a different Chelsea. Sarri has gone, so too have Eden Hazard, Gonzalo Higuain and David Luiz, while Willian and Antonio Rudiger are lacking match fitness.

United may not have got value for money in the transfer market but Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are defensive improvements, making the 90-minute prices difficult to quibble with.

All the suggestions from pre-season hint at a more aggressive United this term with Solskjaer keen on greater fluidity in his front three and a determination to press from the front, hence the risky decision to sell (and then fail to replace) target man Romelu Lukaku.

But it feels like pretty much the same story every summer with United and a blind confidence that they will definitely improve, presumably because of their previous success under Sir Alex Ferguson.

United were sixth last season, three places behind Chelsea, who still possess plenty of quality in key positions.

Kurt Zouma deserves a shot at centre-back following a strong loan spell at Everton and the central midfield pairing of Jorginho and N'Golo Kante is clearly among the Premier League's best.

The blatant concern for the Blues is the departure of Hazard to Real Madrid.

Christian Pulisic has mighty boots to fill considering Hazard scored 16 goals and 15 assists in the Premier League last season and without that inspiration Chelsea could potentially struggle to open up United's new-look rearguard.


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