Last time Chelsea met Manchester United the match witnessed two red cards, a two-goal comeback, an offside winner and, afterwards, allegations of racism on the part of the referee. This time, all that's at stake is a place in the FA Cup semifinals, United's multi-front trophy challenge and possibly even the future of one Wayne Rooney.
Manchester United will host Premier League rivals Chelsea on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the English FA Cup (kickoff 12:30 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer), and if you're planning to watch only one football match this weekend, this one should be it. Here's why.
Back in October, United beat Chelsea 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in a matchup of the Premier League's first- and second-placed teams. At the time, United's victory cut Chelsea's lead atop the table to one point, and since then hardly anything has remained the same.
Less than a month later, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich sacked first-year manager Roberto Di Matteo, who as interim boss had led the Blues to Champions League and FA Cup titles the previous season. Chelsea quickly fell behind in the Premier League title race and crashed out of the Champions League, while United built a 12-point cushion on rivals Manchester City atop the English table.
United's own Champions League challenge ended this week when Sir Alex Ferguson's team lost 2-1 at home to Real Madrid. The match turned on a controversial red card to Nani, and with United's departure from Europe went the Red Devils' dreams of a treble of trophies this season to match 1999's legendary haul.
Afterwards, a "distraught" Ferguson refused to address the media and the players whisked through the mixed zone without speaking to reporters. In response, UEFA has opened a disciplinary case against United to be decided March 21 (via Daily Telegraph).
As early as the next day, the English press was filled with reports of English forward Wayne Rooney's impending departure from United.
Rooney, 27, has ranked among United's most important players since he joined the club from Everton in 2004. But on Tuesday, in United's most important match of the season so far, he started on the bench.
Naturally, then, the Daily Mirror reported that Ferguson is having "grave doubts" over Rooney's fitness and could sell him for £20 million. The Sun quoted Rooney's price at £25 million, and the Daily Mirror at £35 million.
Amid all the turmoil, United must prepare quickly for a high-stakes match against Chelsea. Coincidentally, October's match between the two produced perhaps as much excitement.
United raced to a quick 2-0 lead before Chelsea equalized with goals from Juan Mata and Ramires either side of halftime. Then the tinderbox exploded.
Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic drew a red card in the 63rd minute, but if the Serbian's dismissal was straight-forward, Fernando Torres' five minutes later was anything but.
Torres fell under the challenge of United's Jonny Evans, and referee Mark Clattenburg ruled that Torres had dived. Clattenburg showed Torres his second yellow card, but replays suggested it was the wrong decision.
Even more controversy was yet to come. Javier Hernandez scored the winner for United in the 75th minute, and this time replays showed the Mexican striker was offside.
"There were a lot of tackles against him but he's such a courageous little lad, such a tough, wee cookie, and he's always going to be a threat to defenders," Ferguson said of Hernandez (via ManUtd.com).
Di Matteo's remarks, meanwhile, foreshadowed those United would use more than four months later after losing to Real Madrid.
"It's quite obvious in the eyes of everybody that the second yellow for Fernando wasn't one. It was a foul for us, he should have booked Evans and the decisive goal was offside," Di Matteo said (per ChelseaFC.com). "It's a shame the game has to be decided in that manner by the officials."
Di Matteo never had the chance to exact revenge. His successor, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, will have that opportunity, but what he's never had is the support of Chelsea's fans
Now the roles are reversed in more ways than one. Chelsea topped the table last October when United visited Stamford Bridge, and on Sunday the Blues will visit Old Trafford to play the league leaders and perhaps the favorites to lift the FA Cup.
Last time, Chelsea correctly felt aggrieved by a referee's decisions, even if their response—Ramires accused Mark Clattenburg of racism—turned out to be ill-conceived. This time United will start the match still suffering the sting of injustice, but it's down to Ferguson to focus the fury into a positive form of intensity.
Imagine the outrage from the Old Trafford stands the first time a call goes against the home team on Sunday. For neutrals and fans alike, it should all make for the must-watch match of the weekend.
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