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Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Battle of Premier League titans certain to be a belter


LONDON -- It is prestige as much as points at stake when Manchester United and Chelsea meet in the Premiership summit clash at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Christopher Davies

United is top of the table and three points clear of Chelsea, but even victory and a six-point advantage would not be decisive in terms of the title with two-thirds of the season still to play.

However, the psychological boost to the victors would be huge and potentially long-lasting.

Both clubs go into the match on the back of 1-0 Champions League defeats, United at Celtic, and Chelsea away to Werder Bremen.

"It is always disappointing to lose going into a big match, but both of us have done that," said Chelsea captain John Terry. "However, both teams have big characters and we will see that on Sunday."

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was similarly philosophical.

"Manchester United is on Sunday, and the Champions League is no relation to that," he said.

With Chelsea eight points clear of third-place Portsmouth, the Premiership seems to be a two-horse race and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: "The game with Chelsea will be a massive one.

"Chelsea's excellent starts to the last two league campaigns are the main reason why they've won the title. They've left us all catching our breath, but thankfully we've enjoyed a good opening to the season this time around."

The off-field mind games in the build-up have set the scene for a heavyweight contest with both teams confident of applying the knockout punch.

Mourinho's agenda is so obvious even Mr. Magoo could see it.

The Chelsea manager appears to be attempting to intimidate referees, with England's premier official Graham Poll his latest target.

The Chelsea manager and senior players were critical of Poll after their defeat at Tottenham, though the Tring official merely applied the laws.

Terry and Ashley Cole are likely to face Football Association charges for comments they attributed to Poll, which seem certain to be found unproven. And the suspicion is that if Chelsea can undermine England's top referee, then other officials may subconsciously be affected to its advantage.

Howard Webb is in charge of the Old Trafford showdown and Mourinho said this week: "He is a good referee who seems to get the big decisions right which is important."

Maybe Mourinho had forgotten what he said about Webb following Chelsea's defeat at Manchester City two years ago, when a penalty by Nicolas Anelka gave the home side victory.

"I didn't think it was a penalty but what could I do?" said Mourinho at the time. "The referee was 50 meters away when he made the decision and the only thing he could have seen was (Paulo) Ferreira. He could not have seen Anelka, he could not have seen the ball and he could not have seen the challenge. The referee is not magic.

"That's why the players argued with him. They also knew it wasn't a penalty."

JAMES COTTERILL, a Barrow defender, probably dreamed of making the headlines as the non-Leaguers played League Two team Bristol Rovers in the F.A. Cup earlier this month.

The winning goal . . . a crucial last-minute clearance . . . the stuff of Cup heroes.

Cotterill did make the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons, because the player faces a possible jail term after being charged with causing grievous bodily harm for allegedly punching Rovers' Sean Rigg.

The striker was left with a fractured jaw after an off-the-ball an altercation during the tie, which Rovers won 3-2.

Referee Eddie Ilderton missed the incident which resulted in Rigg, 18, having to have two metal plates placed in his jaw, but it was later highlighted on television.

Football has always preferred to take care of its own on-field disciplinary problems and it is rare that players are convicted on criminal assault charges.

Former Swindon defender Chris Kamara was the first English player to be convicted of GBH, after breaking the cheekbone of Shrewsbury's Jim Melrose (with his elbow during a match) in 1988.

Kamara, now a television commentator, was fined £1,200 and ordered to pay £250 in compensation.

Under current sentencing requirements he would have been more likely to have faced a jail term.

Ex-Everton striker Duncan Ferguson, then playing for Rangers, made history in 1995 when he was jailed for three months after being found guilty of head-butting Raith Rovers' John McStay during a match.

The problem is, where and when should police take action?

Manchester City's Ben Thatcher elbowed Portsmouth's Pedro Mendes in the face earlier this season and it was more luck that anything that the Portuguese was not seriously hurt.

Thatcher was given a long ban by the Football Association but escaped police sanctions.

Lee Bowyer was involved in a 5-second fisticuffs with Newcastle teammate Kieron Dyer last year -- neither was hurt -- but the midfielder was charged with threatening behavior, fined £600, with £1,000 costs, on top of a seven-game ban and club/F.A. fines totaling £250,000.

The worst on-field violence happens in rugby union, with players stomping on opponents' faces and punches exchanged, often leaving victims with broken noses and bloody faces. This, apparently, is part of the sport, rugby lovers say.

So while in no way condoning what Cotterill did, there should surely be more consistency in police action rather than random cases at present.

When Bowyer receives the punishment he did for a "handbags" incident, after he was angry Dyer didn't pass to him, and Thatcher escapes criminal charges, fans are left scratching their heads in bewilderment.

HAVE THE lunatics taken over the asylum at Torquay United?

The League Two club said it will start taking disciplinary action against any of their players who dive or feign injury.

Torquay will operate a "three strikes and out" policy and use video technology to prove cases.

First-time offenders will be warned, players who dive again will be fined, and third-time offenders sacked or placed on the transfer list.

"British football has the opportunity to take a lead in resolving this major issue which is tarnishing our sport and marred the World Cup finals in Germany 2006," said chairman Chris Roberts.

While any steps to rid the game of cheating should be welcomed, Torquay's is unworkable.

First, if a player is not cautioned for simulation during a game how can a club effectively over-rule the referee?

Legally that might be a tough call.

Second, does Roberts know what constitutes simulation?

Most people don't.

A referee can only book a player for diving if there has been NO contact with an opponent.

They are the FIFA guidelines and the reason why some so-called divers escape sanction.

Many times we see a player who has had the slightest touch by an opponent go tumbling over, but he can claim that, at speed, even a gentle nudge put him off balance -- hence FIFA's "no touch" stipulation.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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