Eurosport Roundtable: Can Manchester United overtake Chelsea and win the title NEXT season?
Saturday's Premier League clash between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge looks set to be a cracker - and will likely overshadow the FA Cup semi-finals this weekend.
However, despite the big-game feel, number of stars on display and top-of-the-table implications, it's highly unlikely the game will affect the destination of the actual league trophy itself.
Chelsea are way out in front, and barring a remarkable run-in, even a rare defeat for Jose Mourinho at the Bridge would likely do little more than give Louis van Gaal and his troops a huge boost in their hopes of finishing second ahead of Arsenal.
That's why the Roundtable is looking at the bigger picture this week.
United being this high up the table at all, given their woes since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement and some of the truly-woeful performances put on by their multi-million pound squad this season is remarkable - so can they continue this progress next year, and even go one further by giving Chelsea and anyone else a challenge for first place?
Here's what our esteemed (don't laugh) writers think, and once you've mused their respective takes, you know the drill - add your own via the comments section at the bottom.
Tom Adams (Twitter: @tomEurosport):
NO – Two defeats from 31 Premier League games makes for fantastic reading for Chelsea – as does an eight-point gap over United having played one game fewer. It’s a big gulf, and the sobering thought is that for large parts of the second half of the season, Chelsea have actually been a bit unconvincing. The swagger of their early-season form has dissipated, with too many players seemingly suffering from fatigue as a result of Mourinho’s reluctance to rotate. Good news for United then, as they try to rein them in next time around? Well, no. It just goes to show that Chelsea have lots of room for improvement and if there’s a manager capable of exploiting that, it’s Mourinho, whose meticulous approach means he is a master a marginal gains. This is the season when Chelsea reclaimed the title but, as shown by the Champions League defeat to PSG, they haven’t yet ascended to the level of a great Mourinho team, such as his first title-winning team in 2004-05. United have a big advantage in terms of their brute financial strength, and we can expect the improvements seen under Van Gaal in recent weeks to continue into next season, but with a couple of clever additions it’s not hard to imagine Mourinho building a team capable of pushing for 95 points next season. And that will be too much for United.
Alex Chick (Twitter: @alex_eurosport):
YES - Chelsea will win this season’s Premier League title and rightly start next season as favourites – but there’s a difference between ‘can they?’ and ‘will they?’ – and there’s every reason to think United can mount a convincing challenge in 2015/16. Given the extent of their anaemic attack and shambolic defence for much of Louis van Gaal’s reign, it is borderline miraculous that they are still notionally involved in the current title race and on course for 80 points. Is it possible to imagine United 10 points better next season? Absolutely. As for Chelsea; they have a brilliant squad, no doubt, but isn’t it just a little bit concerning that they are still so reliant on a 34-year-old John Terry? Take him out, and you’re left with a glaring lack of leadership, Keep him in, and you’ve got a middle-aged man with a bad back trying to hold everything together. What’s more – if United don’t put up a fight, who will? Manchester City need a drastic overhaul, Liverpool’s defence doesn’t convince, and Arsenal are Arsenal. LVG must, and will, mount a credible challenge to Chelsea’s supremacy.
THEY ALREADY HAVE CAUGHT THEM - When Manchester United lost 1-0 to Manchester City on 2nd November, they sat 10th in the table, 13 points behind Chelsea, with 10 matches of the season gone. After beating Manchester City last weekend, they were third in the table, and just eight points behind Chelsea. Yes, the Blues have a game in hand, but even if you assume that translates into three points Van Gaal's Manchester United have still outplayed Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.
And it's not like the Blues have dropped off a cliff – they are unbeaten since New Year's Day in the league. Yet if you put together a league table of matches since November 3rd, United are top (P22, W16, 52pts, +27 GD) and Chelsea are second (P21, W14, 47pts, +22).
Ignore the often unconvincing performances (Chelsea put in their share of those as well) and just look at the raw results. This isn't a case of United catching Chelsea – that part of the job is already done. As for who wins the league next season? Well, that's another issue, since a lot of players will be bought and sold at both clubs, and a revitalised Manchester City under Ancelotti, Klopp or even Guardiola could yet have a say. But United will absolutely be joint favourites.
Ben Snowball (Twitter: @BenSnowball):
NO -Or at least, it’s too early to say. Victories over Tottenham, Liverpool and City in recent weeks have sparked this premature chatter, but in all three clashes they were aided by their opponents’ negligence. Let’s not forget that barely a month ago Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford to dump United out of the FA Cup, with the hosts only spared embarrassment by the agility of David De Gea. Meanwhile, Chelsea are coasting to the league title and possess a side already capable of grinding out victories when off-colour – their last six league triumphs have all come via a single goal. Their progress shows no sign of halting and Jose Mourinho will inevitably be backed in the transfer window again, should he seek to strengthen. United can go and splash money to heal their shaky defence, but there’s no guarantee that those linked with a switch, mainly Mats Hummels and Miranda, will be a) interested, and b) any use.
YES – Gary Neville is of a mind that Manchester United require three new players to challenge for the Premier League title. It is hard to disagree with such an assessment. What has become clear as the season has unravelled is that Chelsea are the best of a slightly mediocre pack in England, but it is not a gap that should be deemed unbridgeable if Louis van Gaal spends the club's money wisely this summer. Another splurge of £150 million is unnecessary for United to assemble the necessary tools. If Chelsea were such a potent force, they would not be outside looking in at this week’s Champions League quarter-finals. "They (United) need to continue to improve in two or three positions: a central defender, a midfielder and a winger," comments the former United full-back Neville. Sounds about right. An elite striker may also be a wise purchase with Robin van Persie's future and fitness in some doubt. If Wayne Rooney remains in form, United should certainly trouble Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday night. A challenge over the longer haul looks likelier now that it did three months ago with United only eight points behind the leaders. Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool should harbour similar thoughts about better times ahead. Chelsea may carry off the Premier League this season, but there is hardly a ‘Special One’ dynasty beckoning in the foreseeable future.
Josh Hayward (Twitter: @JoshuaHayward99):
YES! - At one stage this season, Manchester United had 13 points from ten Premier League games. They had suffered defeats to Swansea City, West Brom and Leicester and could only muster dour draws against relegation-fodder such as Burnley and Sunderland. To be frank, Louis van Gaal, who had guided the Netherlands to the semi-finals of the World Cup just months before, was having one of the worst honeymoon periods imaginable.
But there’s a famous footballing phrase in Holland. It is “Aan hetzelfde touw trekken” which means “pulling on the same rope”. And that is exactly what everyone at Manchester United is now doing. Van Gaal has his team playing the way he wants, and this will become even more apparent next term. The Red Devils will strengthen where they need to in the summer, and will be battling it out with Chelsea and Arsenal (only joking) for the Premier League title come the end of next season. I’ll even put my neck on the line and go as far to say they’ll win it!
Maxwell Ward (Twitter: @MGWardy):
NO - It’ll be a year too early for Manchester United but that’s no reason to despair. The real positive is that Louis van Gaal has found a template to build on, something that looked very unlikely a couple of months ago. It’s a huge summer for the club as the Dutchman is given the opportunity that David Moyes never had, to sculpt the squad after a season with the players. Whether it’s four or five signings needed is debatable, but either way I think it will be too many changes to win the title. There will be a settling-in period and the return of Champions League football to add an extra strain. Chelsea will build from a very solid base this summer, adding just one or two first team players to a settled side. Next season I expect United to be a bit like Arsenal were this time around, showing obvious improvement that doesn’t translate into many extra points. You have to remember how efficient this season’s side have been at picking up wins when they’ve played poorly. Next season I expect better performances, more fluent play but NOT the title.