FOX Soccer Exclusive
Focus now shifts to United, Chelsea
In the wake of Manchester United’s controversial ouster from the Champions League, the Red Devils must regroup for a critical test at Old Trafford Sunday as Premier League rivals Chelsea square off against them in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 12 p.m. ET).
United’s tie with Chelsea is a repeat of the 2006-07 FA Cup final, a game that the Blues won to pull off a domestic double. More recently, the two teams met in a thrilling League Cup encounter that Chelsea won 5-4 in extra time. But the matchup most will remember is United’s acrimonious 3-2 win in October at Stamford Bridge.
Then, Chelsea accused referee Mark Clattenburg of using "inappropriate" language towards one of its players, and the subsequent fallout soured the team for months to come. Clattenburg was vindicated; Chelsea’s manager, Roberto Di Matteo, was controversially sacked; and United used that game as a springboard towards their inevitable capture of the Premier League.
On the field, both sides are moving in opposite directions as well. United’s loss to Real Madrid was just their first since last December, and despite the anguish that enveloped Old Trafford Tuesday night, this is a side that looks focused and mechanical. For large stretches against Real Madrid, United dictated the play, and had Nani not been sent off it is likely that United would be awaiting quarterfinal assignment in Europe.
In contrast, Chelsea seems an object story in how not to run a club. Di Matteo’s firing hasn’t changed the trajectory of the team, and interim manager Rafa Benitez has done little to win over the hearts of the fans. The Blues are out of the title race, sitting 19 points off United, and are looking up at Tottenham – and back at Arsenal in fifth. The FA Cup is a must-win for Chelsea, who became the first Champions League title-holders to bow out in the group stages.
"It's a positive. It's good and it's a challenge for us," Benitez said before Sunday's clash. "In terms of the focus of the players, it's good. We have an opportunity very quickly to change things.
"It's a good competition, a very exciting competition and Chelsea, as a club and as a team, have been doing really well. Hopefully we can carry on doing well after this game. That means that we will be through."
United does have some static to deal with as Sir Alex Ferguson’s relegation of Wayne Rooney to the bench against Real has been parsed by everyone from shopkeepers to professional psychics and lip-readers. The consensus is that England’s top striker is on his way out of Old Trafford, with the team having effectively replaced its one-time go-to-man with Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck.
Rooney has been dogged by questions over his fitness and commitment, and the situation is eerily similar to the saga that preceded David Beckham’s departure from the club back in 2003 – albeit without a boot chucked at the Liverpudlian’s head as yet. Ferguson, who has been acidic in his criticism of Rooney’s performance in training, also knows that with the striker on $320,000 a week wages for two years to come, that this may be the best chance to get a return on the club’s investment. Cross-town rivals City and big-spenders Paris Saint-Germain are said to be prepping bids in the range of $32m for Rooney – which is a far cry from just two years ago when City submitted a stunning $64m bid that was knocked back.
Chelsea’s woes are more of their own making. The club has refused to open contract talks with old hand Frank Lampard, and he is rumored to be heading to America’s LA Galaxy at the close of the season. Iinterim coach Benitez has been wildly unpopular, with the slating he has taken from the club’s fans affecting the entire team’s performance. Finally, there remains some deep unrest in a dressing room that is notoriously difficult to control.
While new boys Eden Hazard, Oscar and Demba Ba have been superb (incidents with certain ball-boys aside) the team looks torn between a complete rebuild and a quick wallpapering over the cracks. John Terry is clearly at the end of his career, and questions remain over long-time stalwarts Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic. Only one thing is certain at Chelsea: another new manager – the eleventh in ten years – is on the docket for this summer.
When asked to comment about Chelsea's managerial situation, Ferguson took a soft-approach and refused to add fuel before Sunday's clash at Old Trafford.
"I'm not going to kick anyone when they're lying down," said Ferguson. "It's not my style. My concern is Manchester United. What happens at Chelsea doesn't really affect me. Chelsea have a terrific record in the FA Cup, probably the best of any team in the last decade.
"It doesn't matter when you play Chelsea or who's in charge, we'll have a hard game. We have a job to do on Sunday and I think we'll do that okay."
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