FOX Soccer Exclusive
Focus shifts to riveting Etihad clash
There are huge psychological overtones to both our main events: Manchester City must face Chelsea again (live, Saturday, FOX Sports 2, 12:15 p.m. ET) in a game that has become a battle of words and wills waged between their managers -- and has real implication for the title race as well. Then, Arsenal must host the Liverpool team that whipped them 5-1 in the league (live, Sunday, FOX Sports 2, 11 a.m. ET) in a game in which the result cannot possibly avoid spilling over into the league as well.
It’s positively Mephistophelean, this stuff -- one might think the FA had rigged this draw to inject some spice into what has been a relatively tame Cup campaign so far. But that would never happen, would it?
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini doesn’t like Jose Mourinho. He didn’t like him when he managed Real Madrid, liked him even less when he had to endure his jibes after he saw Mourinho succeed him at Real Madrid, and he definitely doesn’t like him now up North. Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, doesn’t give a crap about Pellegrini, and has been in delicious form all week.
Mourinho, who is perhaps the Michael Jordan of mouth, has been taunting the reticent City manager for two weeks in hopes of getting a reaction. He has raged about City’s adherence to Financial Fair Play, slammed the FA’s refusal to charge Yaya Toure for an apparent kick-out at Norwich’s Ricky van Wolfswinkel, and mused on the teams’ respective title chances. And, in a magnificent needle, he also enquired: who leaves Madrid to go to Malaga? Well, Pellegrini, and that last insult seemed to sting.
Pellegrini has subsequently been dragged down onto the playground, which is exactly where the "Special One" wants him. Last week, the befuddled Chilean exploded; Tuesday he was forced into claiming he did so to get Mourinho to shut up and thus we’re off to the races. No one plays mind games like Mourinho, and if there’s anyone out there who is more glib about denying that he’s playing mind games, then Moriarty’s met his match.
The question is: why? Why is Mourinho playing to the press, and why is poking a fellow professional. Usually, it’s to get a rise -- but this time it’s to take pressure off his own team. His Blues performed remarkably well at the Etihad at the start of the month, exploiting City’s defense with a counter-attacking master-class that used a line of four up top. It was one of the best games of the season and while Pellegrini will have learned from that loss, City will have some of the same holes to fill in this rematch. If anything, Mourinho might be trying to guard against overconfidence.
City’s key absentees on Feb. 3 were Fernandino -- poorly spelled by Martin Demichelis -- and Sergio Aguero up top. Both men will miss this game, and Pellegrini has a long injury list to contend with as well, with Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo, Javi Garcia and Samir Nasri all in various stages of rehabilitation. Pellegrini has refused to make those absences an excuse for a recent dip that has seen them collect just one point from two games, but he cannot have been too unhappy to see his side get an unexpected night off Wednesday when hurricane-force wins battered the North-West of the nation. When he has to play that fixture later next month, his tune may well change.
Chelsea are also facing a crisis of their own, with Gary Cahill and John Terry battling to be fit for Saturday’s match. Cahill took a knock in Chelsea’s disappointing 1-1 draw Tuesday against West Brom, while Terry had to be idled. Both men will be assessed today and Friday.
Will Chelsea be able to repeat their performance? Then, they used Willian and Eden Hazard to exploit City’s uncertainty in the back, and were able to neutralize the Sky Blues’ attempts to overload the flanks. Aleksandar Kolarov and Jesus Navas were forced inwards by the Blues’ midfielders, taking away the wide threats and channeling City’s attack right into Terry and Cahill’s domain.
But the lone goal didn’t come from a striker -- Branislav Ivanovic struck an unlikely and sublime volley home -- and there’s the rub. Neither Samuel Eto’o nor Fernando Torres have been on the mark for Chelsea, and Torres clashed Tuesday postgame with West Brom keeper Ben Foster. Rumors swirl that Torres will be offloaded in the close-season and Chelsea’s lack of punch up top is a real weakness.
There is another factor: the weather. While Thursday gave a respite to the nation after 80,000 homes lost power in England, more is coming. Gale force winds and rains are supposed to lash the nation from Friday on and winds were so high in Manchester yesterday that people were literally being bowled over in the city center, leading the police to warn shoppers not to come downtown. Railways experienced massive disruptions as well, with all services from south to north cancelled. If we see a repeat of these scenes Saturday evening, this game may well fall victim to the chop as well.
Fans should hope not. If this match is anything like the last, we’re in for a treat.
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