What A Friend and what a foe. On the day Sir Alex Ferguson watched his horse run the race of its life to finish fourth in the Gold Cup, his Manchester United side were drawn against familiar opposition in the hunt for the European Cup.
Chelsea and Cheltenham were on Ferguson’s mind on Friday. Ferguson’s Manchester United versus Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea is more than a fixture. It is the collision of the English powerhouses, the dugout duelling of two exceptional managers.
It will be billed as the English civil war, north versus south, Blues versus Reds and Americans against Russians as the Cold War grips the boardroom.
On the field, it will be a fascinating, though probably tight, encounter between a United side plagued by injuries at the back and a Chelsea team working out how to incorporate Fernando Torres. “The team with no defence against the team with no attack,” remarked one Chelsea fan wryly. “Should be a classic.”
It will be tense. United have struggled at Stamford Bridge in recent years, enduring broken title dreams, a snapped metatarsal for Wayne Rooney, a blown fuse for Rio Ferdinand in the tunnel (and a bill for flowers for a female steward afterwards). It even had turf wars, a flare-up between Patrice Evra and a groundsman.
Earlier this month, Ferguson’s outburst after United’s 2-1 defeat resulted in a five-game touchline ban. Most notably, the fixture has seen Chelsea tears and tantrums in the 2008 final in Moscow where they are probably still searching for John Terry’s penalty and Didier Drogba’s composure. This was the night the Ivorian struck a post and then Nemanja Vidic.
Ghosts need banishing for Chelsea. Ancelotti dismissed the “revenge mission” talk, preferring to seek the ultimate revenge by winning at Wembley in the May 28 final. “I’m happy to play against United because, every time, it’s a fantastic game with fair play, without violence, with every player having good control of their behaviour on the pitch, respect for both teams,” said Ancelotti, who may have airbrushed some of the less savoury incidents out of his memory.
“It will be very difficult, above all, this season. United have showed fantastic consistency this season, better than us.”
Ferguson needs his treatment room to empty. Rafael and Vidic should be fit. Chelsea hope Torres regains the sleek predatory form that defined his Liverpool career against Vidic.
Such was the excitement generated by the draw that some Chelsea fans rushed online, booking train tickets to Manchester Piccadilly on April 13, only to count the cost shortly afterwards when Chelsea announced the second leg was on April 12.
United will certainly be happy the Old Trafford leg is second, although Ferguson was simply phlegmatic at Cheltenham. “It doesn’t matter what draw you get at these stages of the season, you have got to perform and we need to perform,” said Ferguson. “We are at that real cutting edge of the season and I am looking forward to it.”
It will not be an expansive affair. David Luiz, such a creative force from the back for Chelsea, is ineligible, having represented Benfica.
The onus will be on Ancelotti’s full-backs, Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole, to provide much of the width. The concern for Chelsea is that they could find themselves fighting fires lit by Rafael and Antonio Valencia on Cole’s flank and Patrice Evra and Nani running at Bosingwa.
Roman Abramovich’s appetite to win the Champions League was quickened by watching Real Madrid’s thunderous 2003 visit to Old Trafford when the Brazilian Ronaldo scored a hat-trick. The oligarch bought Chelsea and the rest is history, trophies and the occasional managerial defenestration.
Abramovich turned to Ancelotti in 2009 to sate his unrequited love for the Champions League. “For this club, obviously it would be important because it would be the first time,” said Ancelotti. “I agree with Jose Mourinho. It’s not an obsession to win it, but a dream.”
Mourinho’s Real Madrid bar Tottenham Hotspur’s path. Even if Harry Redknapp can outwit them, Spurs will, in all probability, find themselves in a semi-final collision with Barcelona, drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk in the quarters. Real followed by Barcelona: Gary Lineker, who conducted the draw, has not so much booked his old club on a road trip across Spain, more an assault course.
Having already faced Inter Milan and AC Milan, Spurs will have seen off opponents who have won the trophy 24 times if they make it to Wembley. As one Spurs fan remarked: “If we get to the final, Uefa should give us the European Cup to keep.”
Those lying in wait include Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil. But Madrid’s defence can be got at. Gareth Bale will relish running at Madrid’s defence. Mourinho will have his game plan for the flying Welshman.
Spurs are much more than Bale; Luka Modric will test Xabi Alonso’s shielding, Sandro matures by the game while Rafael van der Vaart will relish reminding Real what they let go. “For me, it’s the biggest club in the world,” the Dutchman said.
He then ventured an important point, saying: “We don’t have pressure.” Correct. Spurs fans have been loving the journey, boldly going on an unexpected star trek. The second leg at White Hart Lane promises to be a classic. What a prospect.