By Tim Poole
Former England defender Gareth Southgate believes Eden Hazard and Juan Mata can make the difference for Chelsea when they face Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday.
The Blues travel to Old Trafford just three days after their Europa League semi-final second leg against Basel and know that defeat will provide a bitter blow to their chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
However, Southgate believes Rafael Benitez’s side can come away with the right result if attacking midfielders Eden Hazard and Juan Mata "impose themselves" on the midfield battle.
"It’ll be interesting to see if Chelsea’s attacking players, Hazard and Mata, can go to Old Trafford and impose themselves," the 42-year-old told Goal at the Barclays Community Sports Awards. "When they won there in the FA Cup, they were fantastic in the second half and Chelsea really need Hazard and Mata to play well on Sunday.
"Michael Carrick in midfield is the one who makes Manchester United play so the midfield is very important - it is always the key area."
Southgate has been equally impressed with the recent form of Brazilian defender David Luiz, who has flourished since being moved into a more advanced midfield role by Benitez.
"I’m really interested to see that Rafa has been playing David Luiz in midfield in the last few weeks," the 42-year-old continued. "I think it’s a position that really suits him.
"He’s technically good enough on the ball to play there and he’s added goals to his game but, in a playing sense, he’s probably got to learn the defensive side a little bit, even though he is naturally a defender."
The former England international anticipates a tight contest at Old Trafford, believing the newly-crowned Premier League champions will not take any encounter lightly, though he reckons Benitez’s rotation policy will benefit the Blues on Sunday.
"It’s very interesting because Manchester United – with the league already won – in essence have less to play for than Chelsea," he explained. "But any United side want to go out and win football matches, especially against the big sides.
"It will be a tough game for Chelsea and this week will be key for them but Rafa has done a very good job in being able to rotate the team and keep the energy levels high, also getting them through to the Europa League final."
Gareth Southgate, chair of the judges for the Barclays Community Sports Awards, was speaking ahead of the End of Season Awards’ Lunch. The Awards are given monthly to those who have made outstanding contributions to grassroots sport with an overall winner chosen at the end of the football season. To enter your local community sports hero for next season’s awards visit: barclayscommunitysportsaward.com