LONDON • Chelsea's decision to sell Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic to title rivals Manchester United raised more than a few eyebrows and the consequences may be felt when both sides clash in the Premier League tomorrow.
Matic left the London club after 31/2 years to rejoin former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford.
He has played every minute in the league since, helping United to second place in the table.
Mourinho's capture of Matic is looking shrewder every week, prompting former United defender Phil Neville to say after Chelsea's 3-0 Champions League drubbing at Roma this week that selling him was the main reason why Chelsea are struggling defensively.
His absence from Chelsea's midfield will be highlighted further should N'Golo Kante fail to recover from a hamstring injury.
But what is it about the 29-year-old's attributes that Mourinho so desires?
The 1.94m Serb, for one, has an overpowering presence in the centre of midfield, covering the most ground of any United player in nine of their 10 league games so far.
Number of times Nemanja Matic has recovered possession for Manchester United, more than anyone else in the league.
His 116.20km covered in total ranks fifth in the Premier League, just below Tottenham's Dele Alli (116.56km).
Crucially, his ability to win back possession has given the Red Devils' attackers more freedom to roam.
He has recovered possession of the ball 90 times this season - more than any player in the Premier League. Everton's Idrissa Gueye is second at 86.
Kante is back in training for Chelsea, but if he misses out against United, the Blues will be without both members of the central midfield pairing that guided them to the title last season.
In their place, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko bring creative attacking qualities, but do not provide the extra cover Conte craves and United could seriously threaten a fragile Chelsea defence that has conceded 10 league goals this season.
The Blues have also conceded 14 goals in their last eight games in all competitions while recording just a single clean sheet.
Without Kante, Chelsea have lost their defensive stability and balance in the centre of midfield.
Despite his creative talent, Fabregas has been too slow and immobile when it comes to defending.
As for Bakayoko, he does not react to danger fast enough. The Frenchman also does not do a good job of protecting the space in front of his defence.
If United get a victory at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, Chelsea will rue the sale of Matic, whose ball recovery statistics primarily suggest that he is getting the job done as effectively as ever.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE