With or without Diego Costa, one question is being asked ahead of the weekend’s standout clash: can Manchester United’s defence handle Chelsea’s attack?
The theory is United’s inexperienced rearguard will find it difficult to shackle the league leaders’ vibrant forwards. No Costa for Chelsea? No problem. Not when Jose Mourinho can unleash, among others, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian and Cesc Fabregas.
Yet here’s another way of looking at things: do United’s forwards have enough to menace Chelsea’s back four? The manner in which Louis van Gaal’s team have defended so far may be a cause for concern but is what is happening at the other end of the pitch a potentially bigger worry?
Man United's Robin van Persie trains during Friday's session alongside Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao
Chelsea's Diego Costa celebrates scoring their second goal against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on October 4
More from Jamie Carragher for the Daily Mail...
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw and Co should play for England in the Under 21 European Championship... but Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling need the summer off17/10/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: Di Maria is following the greats like Zola, Henry and Drogba in operating at a high level in England from an early stage... but can Ozil recover from his teething problems?17/10/14
- Raheem Sterling should not be burned out like Michael Owen was... anyone who says the England winger was wrong to sideline himself is not looking at the full picture13/10/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: England's last visit to Estonia brought an end to my international career... I knew I had to focus on Liverpool after being benched10/10/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: Luiz Suarez and Eric Cantona were both better players than Didier Drogba but the Chelsea man makes my best foreign XI of the modern era10/10/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: My anger at Raheem Sterling contract story... Why this back page left me seething03/10/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: Liverpool have been so poor this season... now they need to step up the intensity in the Merseyside derby26/09/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: Arsenal are so naive and it's costing them: Everyone knows how to play against them... can Arsene Wenger find the answers?19/09/14
- JAMIE CARRAGHER: Jack Wilshere could be a jewel in Roy Hodgson's diamond 12/09/14
- VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
Tackling the title favourites is Van Gaal’s biggest test since he became manager and all over the pitch there will be key battles, not least whether his attackers can come up with the wit and skill to outfox John Terry and Gary Cahill, the best central defensive pairing in the Premier League.
If you were naming a dream team, many of you — for good reason — would have your three forwards as Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao. They have been magnificent players, their quality undisputed around the world. Those three should guarantee bundles of goals.
But here’s the thing. Van Persie recently turned 31, Rooney was 29 on Friday — the same age Falcao will be when he celebrates his next birthday. The concern for clubs when strikers get into that age range is whether they will maintain their standards and consistency, never mind get better.
Improvement is not something Van Gaal has to worry about with his defence. Luke Shaw is 19, Phil Jones only 22; Marcos Rojo is a 24-year-old who has played in a World Cup final, while Tyler Blackett is 20. United may need another centre back but that quartet’s best years are ahead of them. Can you say the same about the strikers?
Let’s start with Van Persie, the man whose goals were the catalyst for United’s last title in 2013. When I have watched him over the last 12-18 months, he has looked a different player to the one who spearheaded Sir Alex Ferguson’s attack when he arrived from Arsenal.
If you were going to back a coach to get Van Persie thriving, you would pick Van Gaal, his compatriot, but he has looked off the pace. You could argue he is feeling the effects of the World Cup but even in Brazil he didn’t look right. Is he just out of form or has he reached that stage when the dip starts?
Last season he had to contend with the old criticisms that he was injury-prone and we didn’t see evidence of the great partnership with Rooney that we all expected. An interesting statistic is the fact they have only created a total of eight goals for each other since they became a pair in 2012.
Don’t get me wrong, he has been a brilliant striker. But now he is 31, you have to wonder whether we have seen his best. That is a question I also asked about Rooney earlier in the season. In terms of the number of games he has played in his career, he is the equivalent of a 32-year-old.
As for Falcao, the issue with him is intriguing. He was the best out-and-out striker in the world not so long ago and we have seen flashes of quality since he arrived at Old Trafford, but he is coming to the most demanding league in the world on the back of a cruciate- ligament injury.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem. Ruud van Nistelrooy arrived in Manchester on the back of a similar injury and became one of the best strikers the Premier League has seen. He had time on his side to recover, though, as he was 23 when suffering it.
United have agreed a £43.5million fee with Monaco to make Falcao’s loan move permanent and the option is there to send him back if things don’t work out. If they do, though, it is still a huge outlay on a player for whom they could never recoup that amount.
Falcao (centre) and Rooney (right) put QPR's defence under pressure during the 4-0 win last month
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal looks on as his team prepare for Sunday's match against Chelsea
United duo Tyler Blackett (left) and Luke Shaw look focused as they take part in Van Gaal's training session
There will come a point in the next couple of years when United have to replace Van Persie, Rooney and Falcao but, to do that, they are going to have to spend in excess of £80m to bring in two strikers. It makes you wonder, then, why Van Gaal was so quick to off-load Danny Welbeck to Arsenal. Van Gaal was brutal when saying the England striker was ‘below United’s standards’, but doesn’t the manager have a reputation for improving young players?
Welbeck might not have the pedigree of the others but he has got pace and youth — qualities United could do with — and his total of six goals for Arsenal already is as many as Falcao (one), Van Persie (two) and Rooney (three) have scored between them so far.
Like United’s defenders, Welbeck’s best years are in front of him and that decision to sell him may one day be a cause for regret. If the present is about how Van Gaal organises his defence, the future is going to be about how he replaces his attack. It won’t come cheap.
Ruud van Nistelrooy (left) and Sir Alex Ferguson pose for the cameras after the Dutchman signed in 2001
Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck (right) is challenged by Anderlecht's Youri Tielemans on Wednesday
Van Persie (left), Rooney (second left) and Falcao look dejected as Manchester United lose 5-3 to Leicester
Mario's crime was being naive in shirt-swap row
Another week passes and again Mario Balotelli is in the news, this time for his decision to swap shirts with Pepe.
The incident has been blown out of proportion. Had Balotelli actively looked to take Pepe’s shirt, my blood would have been boiling. The reason there has been such anger is that a player swapping shirts at half-time suggests their mind is not on the job.
But look at the clips again. Balotelli has his head bowed and Pepe asks for his shirt, not vice-versa. It makes the situation completely different. This wasn’t like Arsenal’s Andre Santos getting Robin van Persie’s jersey or the incident with Mamadou Sakho, another Liverpool player, and Samuel Eto’o.
Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli (second left) is approached by Pepe (second right) as he leaves the pitch
Balotelli and Pepe swap shirts as they head towards the tunnel at half-time of the Champions League clash
Pepe puts his arm round Balotelli's shoulder before the Liverpool striker is replaced on Wednesday
Balotelli was not souvenir-hunting and you can see from his reaction that he has little interest in taking Pepe’s shirt. On this occasion, he genuinely looked to be minding his own business and had not walked off the pitch pestering Pepe. All he has been guilty of on this occasion is naivety. If he had walked another three or four steps down the tunnel, we would never have known. If he had thought properly, he could have done what Steven Gerrard did with Alvaro Arbeloa and taken Pepe’s shirt after the game.
Looking at the bigger picture, though, his form and body language have been as underwhelming as it was when he played for Manchester City. So why did Liverpool buy him?
I am not alone in thinking he will not be at Anfield next season and that raises another question: how do they sell him?
Balotelli (second left) has his eye on the ball during Liverpool's training session at Melwood on Thursday
Balotelli (right) is put under pressure by team-mate Jordan Williams as Liverpool prepare for the weekend
This week I'm looking forward to...
... Luis Suarez's Barcelona debut. It is great to see my old team-mate back in action and Luis Enrique, Barcelona’s coach, has stated that Suarez will feature at some point in el clasico.
This is the biggest game in football, contested by the two most glamorous clubs on the globe and has always featured the best players in the world. I’ve been to a couple of games and the atmosphere is extraordinary. Luis certainly deserves his place on this stage.
I can’t help but wonder, though, where he is going to fit into Barcelona’s team. Luis Enrique has been coy, not giving any clue about whether Luis will start at the Bernabeu this evening, but he has no need to rush him into the action.
Luis Suarez looks in good spirits as he chats with Gerard Pique (centre) and Lionel Messi (right) on Friday
Suarez (front) is watched by Barcelona coach Luis Enrique (right) during training ahead of El Clasico
Barcelona are top of the table and Lionel Messi and Neymar are both in top form, so it is not as if they are crying out for a massive lift. Neither of those players are going to make way for him, so the most obvious place for him is the one Pedro occupies.
The problem with that, however, is the fact it is on the right. I said when Luis left Liverpool that I could not see him playing in the role he did at Anfield and I stand by that. It will be fascinating to see how he makes the adjustment.
Suarez (second left), Javier Mascherano (left), Neymar (second right) and Messi train on Friday