As the world holds its breath, Cazza evaluates the relative strengths of the key Manchester United and Chelsea performers.
The fact that Man Utd and Chelsea are on level points in the Premiership and set to meet in the Champions League final means we are in for a terrifically exciting finish to the season. They have been the two finest sides in England over the past few years, and it is fitting that they will end the season squaring off for two of the most prestigious titles in football.
It some ways, it is a slightly surprising conclusion to the season, given that in the period following Jose Mourinho’s departure, Chelsea appeared to be in some turmoil. They lost the Carling Cup Final, a game which saw Avram Grant make some highly questionable tactical decisions, and there appeared to be significant unrest in the camp. Even during their recent impressive run, tensions have surfaced – Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba had a run-in during the Premiership victory against Man Utd, for example.
In addition, they looked a bit ropey against Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final, and it was only a very late own-goal by John Arne Riise that secured them a 1-1 draw, without which they would have lost the tie. But Chelsea have battled very hard and are now in with a real chance in both the Premiership and Champions League, which is a credit to the remarkable character and resilience of their team.
Now, the only obstacle to an incredible double are Man United, who have led the Premiership for most of the season, and are chasing their second Champions League title. It would be a very sweet victory for Alex Ferguson, as he probably feels this is the only competition in which he hasn’t been as successful as he might have been. Below, I’ve analysed five key players from both teams, to see which side might have the edge in what will be a memorable conclusion to the season.
CECH vs.VAN DER SAR
Some people have suggested that Cech hasn’t looked the same player since he suffered his head injury against Reading a couple of years back, but I still feel he’s an absolutely top-class ’keeper. He’s also had a few injuries this season which have kept him out of a total of 22 games, but when he’s been in the team he has been as effective as ever. Under Mourinho, Chelsea’s defence was the bedrock of the team, and they remain a tough team to score against. Cech is a big part of the reason why. I still rate him as the best goalkeeper in the Premiership.
EDWIN VAN DER SAR
Peter Schmeichel was a key player in the United team that dominated the Premiership in the late ’90s, and Fergie struggled to replace him after he departed the club. He went through several goalkeepers before he settled on the Dutchman. Van Der Sar is a big, commanding keeper, which Fergie likes, and he marshals his back four very well. I don’t think he’s quite on the same level as Cech (or Schmeichel) when it comes to one-on-ones, but there is no doubt that he has offered the solution to a problem that was proving to be a big headache for Man Utd.
TERRY vs. FERDINAND
The England captain has been the rock at the centre of the Chelsea defence over the past few seasons, and has formed a very formidable defensive partnership with Ricardo Carvalho. He suffered three broken bones in his foot when Chelsea played Arsenal in December, and although he was initially expected to be out for three months, he made a quicker than expected recovery and returned in time to lead out Chelsea in the Carling Cup Final. I believe Terry’s swift recuperation was very important for Chelsea; if he’d been out for longer, it would have been seriously bad news. He remains arguably the best central defender in the Premiership.
RIO FERDINAND [pictured]
I think that when Rio first arrived at Man Utd, he was still a slightly immature footballer, and has had to grow into the player he currently he is. During the three successive seasons United failed to win the Premiership, their defence was a big problem. They lacked a really solid centre-back partnership that was comparable in quality to Bruce and Pallister or Stam and Johnsen, but over the past couple of seasons, Ferdinand and Vidic have rectified that situation in a big way. I still don’t think Rio is quite at the level of John Terry (rather than tackling or heading, his big strengths are in different areas such as organisation) but he has played a massive role in Man Utd’s success over the past couple of years.
LAMPARD vs. SCHOLES
When he was at West Ham, it always seemed that Lampard, given the platform of a big club, could develop into a truly first-class player. He has really fulfilled that potential at Chelsea; a measure of just how much he has achieved is that, in 2005, he just missed out to Ronaldinho in both the European Footballer of the Year and World Player of the Year awards. Obviously, one of his biggest strengths is that he gets forward and scores goals – he is currently the overall top scorer at the club. After Chelsea lost the Carling Cup final, there was a period when their season looked in big danger of going off the rails, but thanks to the character and determination of players such as Lampard, they have put themselves right back in contention in the Premiership and Champions League.
I have talked to various players who have played with Scholes at Man Utd, such as Roy Keane, Denis Irwin and Teddy Sheringham, and they all say that he is a wonderful footballer to play alongside. Not only does he get crucial goals, his work-rate is brilliant and his overall contribution to the team is enormous. At 33, perhaps he isn’t quite at the level he was a few years ago, but he there is no doubting his importance to Man Utd. A knee injury actually ruled him out of action until the end of January this season, but his return was a big boost to United and he still produces moments of magic. Just look at his brilliant, match-winning goal against Barcelona.
BALLACK vs. RONALDO
Ballack has had some major achievements in his career – he is the only footballer to reach the quarter finals of the Champions League with four different clubs, and he made Pele’s list of the greatest living footballers in 2004. I think he was carrying a knock when he first arrived at Chelsea, and he underwent ankle surgery in April of last year, which kept him out for eight months. Despite doubts about his partnership with Frank Lampard, they have played well together, and Ballack was Man of the Match in the 2-1 Premiership win over Man Utd. Doesn't have Ronaldo’s flair, but still a fantastic midfielder.
It is absolutely beyond me why some pundits are continually having a pop at Ronaldo. Johann Cruyff recently stated that he’s better than George Best and Denis Law, and while that’s debatable, he did recently eclipse Best’s record for the most goals scored by a United midfielder in one season. Yes, his diving and complaining are aspects of his game that he should eradicate, but Ronaldo is a player no team looks forward to playing against. Just ask Real Madrid – last month it was reported that they had a world record £100 million offer for Ronaldo turned down by United.
DROGBA vs ROONEY
Drogba was dismayed at Jose Mourinho’s departure from Chelsea and has missed some games this season due to injury, but he has still emerged as one of the club’s key players under Avram Grant. He scored both goals in the 2-1 victory over Arsenal, and really stuck it to Rafa Benitez with the double against Liverpool. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, Drogba would do well to eliminate the diving and complaining from his game, but he is undoubtedly one of the most lethal finishers around.
An injury to Rooney in Man Utd’s first game of the season put him out for a couple of months, but his form upon his return was as excellent as ever. Recently, Alex Ferguson has tended to play him out of position on the wing, but he has still scored 18 goals this season – three more than Drogba. He is always a goal threat in big games, and his workrate is fantastic. Quite simply, Wayne is a brilliant player, and at 22 is only likely to get better. I would be concerned that the injury he picked up recently might result in him missing the Champions League Final, which would be a huge loss to Man Utd.