When Chelsea and Manchester United met earlier this season, the story of that clash was all about José Mourinho. The disgraced former Chelsea manager, forced out after their title defense imploded in spectacular fashion, had migrated north and taken the managerial job of one of his beloved London club’s fiercest rivals. Of course it was going to be awkward. And because it’s Mourinho, the potential for drama was exceptionally high.
If that all seems like a bajillion years ago heading into their return fixture this weekend, it might just be because the stakes are far less abstract. Chelsea have a seven point cushion at the top of the Premier League table, although it’s a lot less stable than it appears. Meanwhile, United are in fifth, four points out of the Top 4, with desperation creeping in as the bare-minimum Champions League qualification seems to be drifting away. Both teams have had to navigate a fiercely competitive race at the top end of the table, and with half a dozen or so games remaining, it’s Do Or Die time for Chelsea and United.
The rivalry that’s developed between them in the Premier League era has been as intense and ferocious as any you’ll find in Europe. Even in early-season meetings, these two go in hard on each other, and it’s truly a sight to behold.
This week we look back a memorable clash from nearly 15 years ago.
The previous campaign ended in disappointment for both sides. United had to settle for third place, a full ten points behind champions Arsenal. Back then, finishing in third didn’t grant an automatic group stage spot in the Champions League, which meant that they would have to slog through early-season qualifiers. Chelsea finished the season in sixth, three points behind Leeds, and had to settle for the UEFA Cup. For both sides, this was unacceptable, and as 2002-03 began they both knew they had to come out swinging.
The clash at Stamford Bridge resembled something of a late-summer storm. Just three minutes into the match, William Gallas gave the home side an early lead with a flick-on off a long free kick. Chelsea mostly managed to fend off their visitors through, but on 26 minutes the firewall was breached as none other than David Beckham hit a superb strike into the top corner. The equalizer inspired a surge of confidence in United and they pushed their advantage hard. But in first half stoppage time Chelsea reasserted their authority as Boudewijn Zenden pivoted on the 18 yard line and buried a shot to retake the lead.
In the second half United laid siege to Chelsea’s goal, keeping them unbalanced and unsettled. They finally hit paydirt in the 64th minute when Ryan Giggs finished a low cross from near the penalty spot, tallying his 100th goal for Manchester United. The visitors pushed relentlessly to take the lead through the second half, and thought they should’ve won after Carlo Cudicini pulled down Paul Scholes in the box for what really should’ve been a penalty. Chelsea’s defense held the line after Giggs’ equalizer and the match finished at 2-2.
Both teams ended up finishing that season better than the previous campaign. United stormed the gates and toppled Arsenal to win the title, their 15th English top flight championship and their 8th in the Premier League era. Chelsea had to settle somewhat, but their 67 points were enough to secure a fourth place finish and a return to the Champions League.
The two behemoths of English football meet once again on Sunday at Old Trafford, with a title and Top 4 qualification still on the line. Kickoff is at 11am Eastern on NBC Sports.