By Chris Myson
Coming after the fiery, passionate and controversial top-of-the-table Premier League clash at the weekend, Wednesday’s Capital One Cup tie between Chelsea and Manchester United should see order restored and a comparatively quiet affair.
But for Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, who are both expected to play in attack for their respective sides, this fixture has the potential to be season-defining.
At one stage last season, the duo looked like they had the world at their feet. Since then, though, their stock has fallen somewhat and as a result this high-profile meeting against quality opposition represents a vital opportunity to shine.
At this time last year, Sturridge had returned from a loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, forced his way into Andre Villas-Boas’ first-team plans and was displaying some magnificent form, making him the standout player in the early part of Chelsea’s campaign.
Welbeck too was making his mark, establishing himself as the first-choice partner for Wayne Rooney up front and impressing observers having also returned from a spell on loan, with Sunderland.
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Sturridge, who fell out of favour after Roberto Di Matteo took charge in the latter stages of the last campaign, has struggled with form and fitness this year, while he has spoken of his unhappiness at not being deployed as a central striker.
With an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres the only other senior frontman at the club, Sturridge should have had more of an impact, but is yet to even start a match in any competition. The club’s continued chase of Radamel Falcao does not bode well for his future chances either.
Welbeck, while still part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans, is yet to prove he can be prolific enough for United to turn to him in the biggest games. With the signing of Robin van Persie and recent impact made by Javier Hernandez, he appears to have dropped down to fourth in the striking pecking order.
This season has brought just one goal, and while he has made five Premier League starts, many of them have been out of position on the wing, as Sir Alex attempts to accommodate Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and new signing Shinji Kagawa in the same team.
So while Torres and Van Persie continue to spearhead Chelsea and Manchester United’s attacks in the big Premier League and Champions League games, an opportunity for Sturridge and Welbeck to make a substantial mark from the start in their preferred position as a striker comes as welcome change.
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While the Capital One Cup may lie fourth in both clubs’ list of priorities this season, the match is still a big one against a major rival, meaning a match-winning contribution or vital goal could bring rewards beyond just getting their side into the next round of the competition.
For Sturridge, his Chelsea career appears to be coming to an end, but in recent weeks he has made some lively appearances from the bench. A strong display against United can put some pressure on Torres for his place and add weight to his argument that he can play centrally, either at Stamford Bridge or elsewhere.
Welbeck is likely to remain part of the Old Trafford furniture for many years to come, but will not want to spend the next couple of years – which are vital to his continued development - as a bit-part player.
He faces a formidable task to get regular first-team action with the strength of competition he faces up front and has no choice but to seize his chance to shine when it comes along.
The tie is a big one for Chelsea and Manchester United as they look to seal a place in the last eight, but it could be even bigger for Sturridge and Welbeck, who must deliver now unless they want to spend the rest of the season as understudies.
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