LONDON • Manchester United against Chelsea has often been a seminal fixture in deciding the destiny of the Premier League title in recent years but today's clash at Old Trafford has a very different backdrop.
United have slipped to sixth in the standings following three successive defeats while champions Chelsea languish in 15th place after a dismal start to the campaign that brought about the dismissal of their manager Jose Mourinho.
Louis van Gaal hinted after United's feeble 0-2 loss at Stoke City on Saturday that he could quit before being forced to relinquish the hot seat.
That Mourinho has been strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford adds another intriguing sub-plot to today's game and the United players know they must step up.
"It's Manchester United we are playing for, it's a special club and it's a privilege to play. We need to do better, it's as simple as that," midfielder Michael Carrick said after the Stoke game.
"We have got another game quickly to get ourselves ready for and we have got to stand up and be ready for that."
United's defeat at Stoke was their fourth loss in succession in all competitions - the club's worst run in a season since 1961 - and reduced van Gaal to a dead man walking in the eyes of the British media.
The Dutchman admitted afterwards that he could not be certain of the United board's support and raised the prospect that he could choose to leave Old Trafford of his own accord.
"I have said already in former press conferences that it is not always that the club has to fire or sack me. Sometimes I do it by myself," he said.
"I am the one who wants to speak first with the board of Manchester United, with my members of staff, with my players and not always you (the media)."
He pointed out that his players are buckling under the weight of expectation, unable to cope with the pressure of the club's bleak predicament. But it is clear that his side have lost their fear factor, their width, verve and defiance.
"Can we play you every week?" chanted the Stoke City fans, revelling in a deserved victory secured by goals from the outstanding Bojan Krkic and Marko Arnautovic.
In the presence of club legends such as Ryan Giggs, Bobby Charlton and Mark Hughes, the Stoke manager, the United players put up a pathetic performance.
They showed little drive or urgency, certainly not until the second half when Wayne Rooney charged on. His lack of confidence and form was palpable but the display was marginally better.
Van Gaal had agreed with MUTV in the build-up that this was a must-win game and embarrassment at home to Chelsea today will surely prove the tipping point, if it has not already been reached.
Chelsea dispensed with their own manager on Dec 17, Mourinho paying the price for a calamitous start to the season, and the Portuguese is the favourite to take over at United should van Gaal depart.
Whether van Gaal is present or not, at least one sexagenarian Dutch coach will be in attendance at Old Trafford today, after Hiddink's appointment as interim manager at Chelsea.
Reprising a role he previously performed in 2009, the 69-year-old began life back at Stamford Bridge with a 2-2 draw at home with Watford on Saturday that left the champions just two points above the relegation zone in 15th place.
Diego Costa scored twice to earn Chelsea a point - book-ending goals from Watford strikers Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo - but will miss today's game through suspension - the cost of a fifth booking of the season. Loic Remy is expected to deputise.
"It will be difficult (today), but I hope this team will show, in every game, the ambition like they showed against Watford," Hiddink said.
"We are going there (Old Trafford) for the win."
Hiddink, however, admitted that the absence of Costa is a major blow to Chelsea's hopes of taking advantage of United's struggles.
"It's a setback of course. Costa's performances are improving. I can complain (about the booking), but it's not my nature," he said.
He acknowledged that United are going through a difficult time, but he refused to consider the uncertainty surrounding the future of van Gaal.
"Manchester United were first and now they are in a different period," he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES, LONDON