FOX Soccer Exclusive
Giants amp for heavyweight showdown
We had a busy midweek with Champions and Europa League play, which will undoubtedly directly affect many of the Barclays Premier League top matchups this weekend – some for better, others for worse, but all for our entertainment. Oh, and did we mention that top of the table Chelsea will host second-placed Manchester United?
Chelsea vs. Manchester United (live, Sunday, 11:30 AM ET, FOX Soccer)
Even if this wasn't a battle between the top two teams in the league right now, we would all still be salivating over this one.
The history, the stars, the circumstances and the drama this rivalry possesses alone should hook any fan. All you have to do is go back to last Super Bowl Sunday to realize that when these two get together, magical things seem to happen. For those with short memories, Chelsea was at home and up 3-0 before Howard Webb (cough, ahem, United haters) awarded two penalties for United – both of which Wayne Rooney converted – and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (who has scored in four of seven appearances against Chelsea in all competitions) headed a dramatic equalizer.
Unfortunately for the clubs – but thrilling for the fans – these two teams will be seeing a great deal of each other over the next few days; first on Sunday, then in the Capital One Cup later this month. The cup match is secondary, as Sunday's encounter will give us all a better grasp of how the league will sort out in May. Regardless of the outcome, Chelsea will still close the weekend on top of the league, but the direction of the rest of their campaign may not be as clear.
Just when we were set to anoint Chelsea as the "Barcelona" of the Premier League, they go and fall Tuesday in Champions League play. The Blues looked poor and uninterested, while seeing Frank Lampard leave injured. Traveling back from the Ukraine will not be an easy trip.
United at home, again succumbed to their nasty habit of falling behind early, only to see their offense bail them out – again. The Red Devils rested Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and Paul Scholes, as Sir Alex Ferguson was clearly looking ahead to Sunday. But to a point, some of those players have been THE problem for United. Age is brutal, and it's catching up fast to some of United's mainstays (Yes, Mr. Giggs, you are definitely on that list as well).
Big picture impact: Chelsea wins, and it would take a real creative mind to NOT consider them the odds-on favorites for the league title. A Manchester United win would wake up the other contenders, and an all out title race would be on, with United in the driver's seat (even though they would still trail on points). Man, I love this league.
Oh, by the way, how about this rivalry game being overshadowed? One of the keys will be which side can handle the intensity with the most composure (20 red cards in this series – most of any in the league). Everton, still sitting in fourth place, doesn’t strike me as a side that will be overwhelmed by the pressure, expectations, or intensity. If they are committed to being in the title conversation, they need a healthy Marouane Fellaini, some more clean sheets from Tim Howard and a win Sunday.
Liverpool is just trying to keep their methodical march out of the relegation zone going right now. 17-year-old Raheem Sterling has been their bright spot, and something the brass can point to as a young project that is working out. Maybe this is the week where the Reds make believers out of the new Brendan Rodgers era? Doubtful.
What has happened to Arsenal? No way they allow winless Premier Leauge teams to beat them two weekends in a row, right? And did the guys get off the wrong Tube stop Wednesday as they were shutout at home by Schalke?
And suddenly, we’re getting the sense that the United Nations project known as QPR may be starting to gain some traction. A home draw with Everton last weekend should provide them with a glimmer of hope that they may yet pull themselves out of the cellar. That being said, a win at Emirates would be the upset of the year.
There are some big problems brewing with City this week after their Champions League loss at Ajax: Discord among players, Roberto Mancini being dealt some harsh criticism, and an injury to Samir Nasri. They HAVE to get Carlos Tevez back in their game plan.
After a hot start – four goals in first four games, including the Community Shield – he has cooled off dramatically, and has now gone eight games in all competitions without a goal. City are allowing goals at any alarming rate, particularly off set pieces (they have conceded a league high 56% of goals off set pieces), and they keep relying on late game substitute heroics to bail them out. A rare loss at home (33 straight home BPL games without a defeat) may just be enough to kick off some managerial hunting by the money men at City.
Change of gears
For those that took in our CONCACAF Champions League action this week, I would like to apologize for some of the events that took place. Yes, I'm looking directly at you, sub-par officials, chronic time-wasters and serial injury embellishers.
Those actions are, in my mind, the second great stain on this sport right now (right behind the racist acts around our game). Yes, there is an art to closing out a game, and many will say that the American players and teams just don't have it. I agree – when it comes to those disgraceful “tactics,” they don’t have it. And for that, I am thankful.
A 15-year broadcast veteran, Rob Stone is the lead studio host for FOX Soccer Match Day, Goals on Sunday, and UEFA Champions League coverage. Follow him on Twitter @RobStoneONFOX.