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Saturday, April 21, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Upcoming Man United-Chelsea trilogy should be great theater


LONDON -- Three vs. four. The Treble against the Quadruple. Manchester United and Chelsea are providing the mother of all finales to the English season.

Christopher Davies

Both clubs can win the Premiership, F.A. Cup and Champions League -- Chelsea already has the League Cup in its ever-growing trophy cabinet.

The two heavyweights of English football are indulging in their own private battle for domestic and European supremacy. United's style and individual brilliance against Chelsea's power and all-around strength.

After midweek victories, United leads Chelsea by three points though the Reds have a superior goal-difference (54 to 40) which is in effect worth another point.

The teams meet in a potential Premiership decider at Stamford Bridge on May 9.

While many believe it is not good for the Premiership to be dominated by four clubs (Arsenal and Liverpool provide the supporting acts) we could be in for a unique, utterly fascinating and unforgettable three matches between United and Chelsea next month to decide the league, F.A. Cup and Champions League.

It is Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe, Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky.

Premiership showtime resumes this weekend when United plays Middlesbrough on Saturday and Chelsea meets Newcastle Sunday -- both sides have five matches remaining.

It is almost unthinkable that the Top Two will not pick up maximum points against mid-table opposition.

Expect team selection for the forthcoming Premiership matches to reflect the importance of European ties coming up with key players rested.

Next week United plays AC Milan and Chelsea plays Liverpool in the Champions League. The big games just keep on coming.

Will Jose Mourinho become the Quadfather?

Can Sir Alex Ferguson repeat United's League, F.A. Cup and Champions League success of 1999?

The managers' mind games promise to be almost as entertaining as the real thing. Neither Ferguson nor Mourinho can resist such confrontation.

Two brilliant coaches who play the media game to perfection -- "He is a great manager," said Mourinho of Ferguson. "He's the top manager in the country. Maybe when I become 60, the kids will call me the same. We respect each other and now I really hope that the (Champions League) final is an all-English affair; I think English football deserves that and it would be magnificent."

Before the potential Athens showdown, the teams meet in the Premiership and Mourinho said: "The game at Stamford Bridge is also a final. I just hope we can keep in there, play that game with a chance to be champions. We are the best footballing country, for sure, so for two teams to meet in the final in Athens would be provide the cherry on top of the cake."

Chelsea's progress toward Mission Impossible is more remarkable given the family at war that is Stamford Bridge.

Exactly how wide the rift is between Mourinho and owner Roman Abramovich few know, but their relationship, or lack of it, continues to occupy a rain forest of back pages.

It would be easier to justify buying a time-share in Siberia for January than firing Mourinho if Chelsea wins everything, but when you are as rich as Abramovich you know you can buy the best successor.

"No one will leave the club if we win the quadruple, definitely not," said Chelsea captain John Terry. "We are a tightknit family and want to keep it that way."

United has no such problems.

The Florida-based Glazer family, who bought the club for £790 million two years ago, have not interfered as some predicted and Ferguson has been able to strengthen his team to his wishes.

ENGLISH FOOTBALL'S Big Four are all likely to all be under foreign ownership after David Dein's surprise resignation as Arsenal vice-chairman on Wednesday.

Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks now control Liverpool, and U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke's purchase of 11.26 percent of the shares in Arsenal is seen by many as the first step in the Gunners becoming the next Premiership club owned by an American investor.

Dein, the man who brought Arsene Wenger from Japan to Arsenal, left the club after "irreconcilable differences" with the board.

Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood is strongly opposed to any takeover, the old Etonian saying he would be "horrified if the club were to go across the Atlantic."

Hill-Wood was adamant that three of the other directors, Danny Fiszman, Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith and Richard Carr, who between them own more than 44 percent of the club, would not sell to Kroenke.

Dein joined the Arsenal board in 1983, when he bought 16 percent of the club for £293,000.

At the time Hill-Wood called Dein "crazy" and said it was "dead money." But his shareholding is now very much alive and kicking, valued at £60 million.

It is believed Dein feels the only way to compete with Chelsea, United and Liverpool is to bring in foreign investment.

Arsenal has the best young players in the Premiership coming through but needs to add more experienced, top-class talent to the side.

Little is known of Kroenke's intentions -- he is nicknamed Silent Stanley -- but the man worth an estimated $2 billion will not be short of cash.

Kroenke, who owns some of the most valuable real estate in the United States, is no newcomer to sport -- he bought the St. Louis Rams in 1993 and seven years later they won the Super Bowl.

In 2000 Kroenke bought the NHL's Colorado Avalanche and the NBA's Denver Nuggets -- the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer would soon follow.

How Kroenke would get on with Wenger remains to be seen, but the most traditional of English clubs with a multinational team seems set top be the next Premiership outfit to go West.

Wenger's relationship with Dein has been a key to the Frenchman remaining at Arsenal, but Hill-Wood said: "It is well known Arsenal and David have got on very well over the last 10 years and I am certain Arsene will miss him. The relationship Arsene has with the board is good. He is under contract until 2008 and we hope he will stay beyond that."

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


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