Chelsea v Manchester United: Time for fireworks on the pitch
Where's the fireworks party? When the Premier League's two leading teams collide, the preceding days are often peppered with incendiary verbal jousting, declarations of dark intent by rival players and spats between managers. Not this year. Chelsea versus Manchester United has enjoyed a thoroughly civilised build-up. The cordial has replaced the cordite. Related ArticlesDrogba will exploit UnitedAncelotti in vintage formKevin Garside: Manchester United search for rhythm as Chelsea peakDebate: Drogba v RooneyChelsea v Manchester United: match preview'United tie just another game'Hallelujah. The focus is on the football. Carlo Ancelotti praises Wayne Rooney. Sir Alex Ferguson enthuses about Frank Lampard. Only those who have not been paying attention to the statements and stances at Cobham and Carrington would be foolish enough to call Chelsea-United a grudge match. In such a mad, unpredictable sport as football, events at Stamford Bridge today could, of course, deteriorate into the Alamo. Patrice Evra might re-open discussions with Chelsea's ground staff. Nemanja Vidic might debate with Didier Drogba the great collapsible striker's over-zealous espousal of Isaac Newton's theory of gravity. The Shed might caustically enquire why Rooney fails to wear a poppy unlike the captain of Germany, Michael Ballack. Encouragingly, no run-ins have scarred the run-up. The major off-field talking point has been which wine Ancelotti will serve Ferguson. Two men of great footballing substance gush about each other. "It's not a match between Ancelotti and Ferguson,'' stresses Ancelotti. "It's Chelsea v Manchester United.'' It's about the 90 minutes. Football will always struggle to reclaim itself as a pure sport, banishing all the business, politics and speculation from centre-stage, but matches like this give some hope. It's time to get the ball out. The World Cup concentrates minds. The season climaxes at Fifa's quadrennial festival, an occasion to remind everyone what this crazy, self-regarding, glorious lark is all about: skills and thrills. England reconvene this week and all the chatter will be about form, fitness, the identity of Fabio Capello's 23 for South Africa, the goalkeeping dilemma and the concerns at No 9. So many footballing questions. Can Capello seriously afford to omit Michael Owen's penalty-box cunning? Can Kieran Gibbs emerge in time to displace Wayne Bridge? Is David James too old and creaky to stand up to Fernando Torres and Luis Fabiano on the Veld? Capello deserves a nation's gratitude for cancelling the sideshows, notably the Wags, and getting everyone to focus on the main show, on the football. But time for a warning: when United last visited Stamford Bridge in World Cup year, Rooney snapped his metatarsal and England's ambitions for Germany 2006 went up in smoke, X-rays, recriminations and red cards. The mood can change suddenly. For now, discourse revolves around the football. Take the main gossip on the three teams who can win the Premier League: Chelsea, United and Arsenal. At Stamford Bridge, where the only name-calling now relates to the stadium, Chelsea are threatening to become sensible citizens of Planet Football. Ancelotti, the genial statesman of the technical area, leads Chelsea back on the trophy trail. Fans natter about the irresistible form of Lampard, Drogba and Michael Essien, the triumvirate who could seriously harm Ferguson's men on Sunday. United fans should worry about the colossal debts of the Glazers' regime but most spend their time discussing the team, musing on Ferguson's best central midfield (probably Paul Scholes-Darren Fletcher), fearing any injury to Rooney, revelling in the memory of Ryan Giggs' sublime pass to Owen to win the derby and wondering why they have prevailed only once on their last 10 visits to the Bridge. Probably because Chelsea are quite good. At Arsenal, for all the deliberations about Stan Kroenke versus Alisher Usmanov (and anyone who cares an ounce about the club will be an ABU Anyone But Usmanov) the main conversations among Arsenal supporters are these: the impact of Thomas Vermaelen, the growing stature of Alex Song, the craft of Cesc Fabregas, the tricks of Andrei Arshavin and the razor-sharp finishing of Robin van Persie. What happens in the 90 minutes will always obsess supporters more than what occurs in the board room. Also helping drag attention back to the football has been Richard Bevan, the shrewd chief executive of the League Managers Association who has worked hard at improving relations between managers, although the Ferguson-Rafa Benítez tension would have tested the diplomatic skills of Henry Kissinger. Now Ferguson acclaims Ancelotti and Chelsea, delivering a slight dig to Benítez's Liverpool and Arsène Wenger's Arsenal in the process. "They [Chelsea] have replaced Arsenal as our main competitor for trophies: we have faced them in FA Cup and European Cup finals, they or us have been first or second in the league a number of times. "Lampard is still going strong and full of energy. He looks after himself well and Chelsea have a fantastic player there but they have great experience throughout the team.'' Such nous has allowed them to understand Ancelotti's diamond demands, Ferguson argued. "If you look at Ballack and Deco, they come from places [Germany and Portugal respectively] where tactics are more of an issue. Anelka and Drogba have played abroad so it's not surprising they have adapted. It [the diamond] is the same to how Carlo operated in Milan with the difference being that at Milan he had Kaka. That made a hell of a difference and they are still looking for someone in a forward role to balance their team better. "They have tried Lampard there, Deco, even Malouda and now they have brought in Joe Cole. He is a very mobile player for that diamond. He's a brave lad.'' Deco may start in what is sure to be a congested midfield, particularly if Ferguson strings five across the middle. On the issue of rotating his midfield, Ferguson explained: "Every United game is harder than anyone else's. Everyone lifts their game for Manchester United. "The pace of the game is incredible so you cannot play the same players all the time. Ten years ago, Keane, Beckham and Giggs were young, fresh and determined. They could run all day. Scholes was a different type of player, of course. We don't have those type of players now.'' If the champions are to stand a chance against Ancelotti's physically and mentally strong team, then Fletcher and Rooney must seize control. "Fletcher is a big-game player,'' said Ferguson of his fellow Scot. Rooney could trouble Chelsea's defence but he must first find the space and the ball. He enters a crowded house, needing all his strength and skill if he is to score the goal he craves to mark the birth of baby Kai. The paparazzi got all excited over the debut of Rooney's first child but there was no drama: ordinary (if well-paid) bloke emerges from hospital carrying his baby and goes back to work. It was so utterly normal. This is the age of Rooney, not of David Beckham. The circus has left town, leaving a sporting carnival. The odd firework may go off at Stamford Bridge on Sunday but it should really be to celebrate that football has not forgotten that it is a sport. And a special one.
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