Like London buses incidents of racism appear to come in threes in English football; a trio of shocking accusations that have left the beautiful game with a festering wound. When Manchester United visits Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, for the second in a league and cup double-header this week it is, once again, the most unsavoury side of the game that will dominate the headlines. It should not be this way; a game no longer at one with itself.
First, a little over a year ago, Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra, repeatedly and with malice. Shortly after, John Terry called Anton Ferdinand a “f*cking black c*nt” – a crime for which the Chelsea captain is serving a far too lenient ban.
In the latest dark moment for the game referee Mark Clattenburg stands accused of racially abusing two Chelsea players – John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata. While nothing is yet proven of Clattenburg’s actions last Sunday, briefing and counter briefing through the mass media has done little to clarify the picture of an alleged incident that may yet have major ramifications for the game.
The episode, taken together with Chelsea’s perceived injustices during the Premier League encounter on Sunday – Fernando Torres’ red card, Javier Hernández’ winning goal – means there will be a feisty atmosphere for what might otherwise have been a tepid affair. Whatever the merits of the Capital One Cup, Wednesday’s tie was always going to feel like the morning after the Lord Mayor’s show. No longer so.
Still, there is a game on and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to field a fringe side for the fourth round tie in west London. Out go United’s old guard, including Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick; in come a host of youngsters and squad players in need of playing time.
Indeed, Ferguson is likely to make at least 10 changes from the side that started at the Bridge on Sunday, although winning goalscorer Hernández could start alongside Danny Welbeck in attack. Into the side may also come defenders Alexander Büttner, Michael Keane, and Scott Wootton, together with Nani, Anderson and Anders Lindegaard.
“Obviously we will make changes for the Wednesday game,” confirmed Ferguson, with United seeking consecutive wins at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 1998.
“The squad that played against Newcastle will be in place again. You don’t want to lose down there and we want to continue in the cup. Any game down there is going to be tough. There has been good progress there since Roberto di Matteo took the job. They are big games – and big games are good for us.”
However, the game will come too soon for defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, although each is nearing a return that will bring to a close a defensive headache that has seemingly overshadowed Ferguson’s squad since August. Captain Nemanja Vidić is likely to be on the sidelines until December at a minimum.
“We will try to push Chris on quickly,” added Ferguson of the 22-year-old centre back.
“I don’t think he will make Wednesday’s game but I am sure he will be ready for the following week. There was some hope both he and Phil would be back for this busy schedule. Phil will be starting football training next Monday. He still has some running to do. The good news is they are not far away.”
Smalling’s loss is potentially others gain, with at least one of Wootton or Keane likely to start at Stamford Bridge. Keane impressed with a classy performance against Newcastle United at Old Trafford in the third round, although as the senior party Wootton is more likely to start.
Still, Keane is relishing the opportunity to be part of United’s party travelling south once again this week. The Stockport-born youngster is United’s current Reserve Team Player of the Year.
“You play games with more pressure when you get to a higher level,” the 19-year-old told MUTV.
“Every game you play, you’ve got more experience of playing for points and playing because it means something rather than just friendlies. When you get called into the first team, you’re used to being desperate to win.
“I was so tired [after the Newcastle tie]. I’ve never been that tired after a game. Mentally as well as physically because of the concentration, how the day went building up to it and then the 90 minutes was tough but we did well.
“I know there’s probably only going to be one or two opportunities because of the players involved but I can’t think like that. I’ve just got to work hard every day in training and prove I’m good enough to play and, hopefully, get picked. I keep stepping up a level and, hopefully, that will keep happening and I can progress with England and keep getting my chances here in the first team.”
Meanwhile, Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo is likely to rest those most closely involved in the post-match argument with Clattenburg, including the alleged victims of on-the-field abuse, Mikel and Mata.
The west London club this week made a formal complaint that the Geordie referee used “inappropriate language” on the field, while briefing the press that words of a racist nature were uttered by Clattenburg. It is likely to be another long-running and highly damaging saga.
On the pitch Di Matteo is without a host of first-team regulars through injury and suspension, meaning a much changed Chelsea side is likely to be deployed for United’s visit.
“It is certainly a tricky situation,” said the 42-year-old Italian.
“We have Branislav Ivanovic, Fernando Torres and John Terry suspended, and Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole out injured. Ashley’s ankle is sore and swollen and he won’t recover in time for tomorrow. So it reduces the squad but everybody else is okay. We always talk about developing and giving youngsters a chance so this type of game is a good opportunity for some of them.”
It is a strategy, for one match at least, mirrored by the visitors. In that there is hope for the future. If not the game itself, then of the respective clubs at least.
Chelsea v Manchester United – Capital One Cup, Stamford Bridge – Wednesday 31 October 2012, 7.45pm
Chelsea (4-4-2): Hilário; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill, Bertrand; Marin, Ramires, Romeu, Moses; Sturridge, Piazón. Subs from: Turnbull, Ferreira, Mikel, Oscar, Mata, Hazard, Torres, Malouda, Feruz.
United (4-3-3): Lindegaard; Keane, Wootton, Evans, Buttner; Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher; Nani, Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Johnstone, De Gea, Cole, Lingard, Vermijl, Rafael, Valencia, Giggs, Young, Powell, Macheda, King, Henríquez.
Referee: L Mason
Assistant referees: J Collin and J Brooks
Fourth Official: M Dean
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Chelsea 2, Draw 2
Overall: United 79, Chelsea 41, Draw 48