April 16, 2015

It's amazing what one complete 90-minute effort can inspire.

In the case of Manchester United, they're talking title hopes heading into Sunday's match versus cherished rivals Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Tuesday was one of the happiest days in a season of discontent for the Red Devils. They ended their painfully long 11-match run without a first-half goal at Old Trafford and finished with - by their standards - a deluge in cruising past Stoke City 3-0. Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney each had a goal and an assist for Manchester United (11-7-6), who maintained their tenuous hold on fifth place - one point better than West Ham United - while still lagging 10 adrift of first-place Leicester City and five back of Arsenal for fourth heading into the weekend fixtures.

But with Manchester United scoring three goals for a second straight match and third time in five, there's an air of optimism originating at Old Trafford with hopes another such effort in London can lead to bigger things.

"I feel that if we beat Chelsea - and that is not simple, it is very difficult as they don't lose anymore with Guus Hiddink - then I think our competition and our league shall start again and that is very important," manager Louis van Gaal told the team's official website. "We have the feeling because we are winning two times in a row and with sparkling football, goals and clean sheets."

The renaissance on offence, which has quieted some of the calls for van Gaal's ouster, has coincided with Rooney's sparkling form. He's netted seven goals over his last seven matches in all competitions and is bearing down on Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time Manchester United record of 249 goals, entering this match five shy of that long-honoured standard.

Rooney, though, has not scored against Chelsea in league play since 2012.

Even with his departure from the Chelsea touchline and Stamford Bridge now measured in months as opposed to weeks ahead of the reverse fixture, the spectre of Jose Mourinho has the potential to loom large this weekend with the BBC reporting Manchester United have entered negotiations with the Portuguese's representatives since van Gaal is widely expected to leave Old Trafford at season's end.

Mourinho has long held a deep regard and fascination with the franchise throughout his career, developing a friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson during the heights of this rivalry in his first stint at Chelsea. Whether the polarising "Special One" can convince the Glazers and the board he's the man to restore Manchester United to Ferguson's glory days, though, is yet to be seen.

Mourinho's successor - the aforementioned Hiddink - has kept Chelsea (7-8-9) afloat by picking up points, but not always wins. There have been more draws than victories under the Dutch manager, the most recent coming with a scoreless stalemate at Watford on Wednesday that left the Blues unbeaten in eight (3-5-0) in league play.

Chelsea didn't come to life until the last 20 minutes with the introduction of Eden Hazard and were denied the full spoils by a string of quality saves from Heurelho Gomes, and Hiddink realises a lack of goals will scuttle any attempt to escape their current mid-table status.

"We are unbeaten and have got some victories, we are through in the FA Cup, but to get to that fourth position you need to win, win, win," he said at his pre-match conference Friday. "That's very difficult. I said before the FA Cup game against MK Dons we must not just depend on Diego (Costa) regarding the goals. They responded. Oscar responded. We need the attackers to finish it off."

Hiddink refused to commit to starting Hazard for this match - the Belgium star is remarkably still goalless in 21 league appearances a season after netting 14 - but did confirm late transfer signing Alexandre Pato is still "in his preseason" and not available.

Costa again emerged as a talking point from Watford, nearly boiling over in a clash with Juan Carlos Paredes that earned both yellow cards as Costa's level of antagonising opponents of late is running consistent with his improved play.

Chelsea's other subplot will be the fan base's reaction in John Terry's first home match since he announced this will be his final year at Stamford Bridge. The road supporters were in full throat singing their captain's praises at Vicarage Road, and whether there will be any toxicity from the fan base toward management similar to how they chastised the players for contributing to Mourinho's exit is unknown.

The reverse fixture at Old Trafford on Dec. 28 was unsurprisingly goalless, but also a testy encounter - one without the banned Costa - that saw more cautions issued (six) than shots on frame (five), with Rooney fortunate to escape a sending off for his poor challenge of Oscar.

Scheduled referee Mike Oliver has not been shy about showing yellow cards, averaging 3.7 bookings in 15 matches and showing three red cards.

Manchester United held the better of possession at 61 percent, and ex-Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata and Martial both hit the woodwork early, but David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois made quality saves to preserve the scoreline.

Chelsea are unbeaten in nine matches (5-4-0) against Manchester United since a 3-2 loss Oct. 28, 2012, at Stamford Bridge. United have failed to score in their last two contests versus Chelsea and have just two goals in the last seven between the teams.

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