CAIRO, EGYPT – Chelsea take on Manchester United in a massive Premier League clash airing live on FOX before the Super Bowl (check your local listings; the national telecast begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern).
It's a game that may allow United to take over sole possession of first place, but it's also a critical match for a sagging Chelsea side that is clinging to the Barclays Premier League's final Champions League slot. And odd as it sounds, it's a game with distinct parallels to the Super Bowl that follows.
Manchester United are often compared to the New York Yankees both for their marketing clout and for their global reach, but a better analogy might well be the New York Giants: a team that is intensely proud, rules its city, and has had a coach that has been forced to mellow as time has progressed.
Sir Alex Ferguson is rightly considered one of the greatest figures in the game. The most successful head coach in British soccer history (48 titles), the Scot has won just about everything you can at the club level. His 25-year tenure with United has seen him average of a league title every other season and make the Red Devils into the most successful British club in history.
But Ferguson has also been forced to adapt. Famously explosive in the locker room, Ferguson's "hairdryer treatment" spared no one - not even glitterati like Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney or Paul Scholes. Yet even Ferguson has been forced to admit that times have changed, and he has had to adapt with them. While he bemoans the lifestyle choices of some of his players (he recently complained to a colleague of mine that his Brazilian players "eat too late"), gone are the days when he chucked a shoe at David Beckham.
What hasn't changed is his insistence that his word is law. In that, Ferguson and the Giants' Tom Coughlin -- another famously red-faced coach -- are exactly alike. And both men have had to deal with swings in fortune. This season's United is indeed tied atop the table with city rivals Manchester City, but this is not the same caliber United side that once ripped through all comers in the Premiership. Instead, it is a team that has been badly weakened by major injury and has struggled to dominate opponents in the way to which fans have become over-accustomed.
Cognizant of that, Ferguson made a daring move, re-signing the retired Scholes just under a month ago in the hopes of giving his team some badly needed depth. It has helped but not enough. While last year United stood as at least a credible challenger to the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona, this season they have had to deal with the indignity of being bounced out of Champions League at the group stage, elimination from the League Cup at the hands of second-division Crystal Palace and, most recently, an early exit from the FA Cup at the hands of venerable rival Liverpool, perhaps the last team United supporters like to have to acknowledge.
Still, United -- like this year's Giants -- have shown a penchant for getting hot late. While they badly miss players like Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley, star attacker Wayne Rooney remains a potent force for the club, while fellow forwards Dimitar Berbatov and Chicharito show signs of breaking out of their slumps.
If United are the Giants, then Chelsea are the Patriots -- a team that once won games with its defense but now has to outscore teams to get results. Like the Pats, they possess some individually dazzling talent while also looking uncomfortably like a team that is nearing the end of a cycle. Chelsea, like the Patriots, used to simply reload. Now, after a series of expensive fumbles, the Blues are playing some of their poorest soccer in a decade. They're desperate for points.
No one will confuse Andre Villas-Boas with Bill Belichick, however. Chelsea's weakest link may be on the sideline, where the young disciple of former Blues boss Jose Mourinho has struggled to put his imprint on the team in any meaningful way. Chelsea have looked adrift tactically and technically, and are really showing their age.
But some of the biggest headaches have also come at the hands of their marquee players. Fernando Torres, last year's ludicrously expensive transfer signing ($79.5 million), has been nothing short of a disaster. At first, the former Liverpool man's failure to score goals induced schadenfreude - his was a cautionary tale and just desserts for a team many felt had tried to buy titles. Now, as the agonizing performances pile up, even some of his harshest critics have been trying - without success - to find a silver lining.
Then, there's John Terry, a man whose off-field antics would make folks wish Terrell Owens was on their team instead. The latest "distraction" is that he will stand trail for racist abuse of an opponent this summer. The captain of Chelsea and now former captain of England (having had the honot taken from him Friday) has been branded as "toxic," and not for the first time. At the last World Cup, he held a remarkable press conference that undermined his own manager -- and this was after he'd contributed to team harmony by knocking up a teammate's ex-girlfriend. The fact that he's not a very good defender any more also hasn't been lost on some folks.
Chelsea have been trying to rebuild their team but have not been able to overcome the drag that the old guard has had on their squad. The aging Frank Lampard remains their leading scorer while Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou have faded badly. And some of their pickups simply haven't worked: Torres has not been a factor even when running off classy Juan Mata.
The shocking drop off at the back has been this team's Achilles. Ashley Cole, suspended for this game, has too often been dreadful this season anyway. Terry's woes are well known, and goalkeeper Petr Cech has not looked the imposing character he once was. Jon Obi Mikel was once a decent defensive midfielder but he has vanished; David Luiz has all the talent in the world but little of the necessary common sense.
Sadly, Chelsea don't have a player like the Pats' Tom Brady. That player once was Drogba. This weekend, the indispensible striker will be playing, but not for Chelsea. In a situation the NFL never has to deal with, he'll be suiting up for Cote d'Ivoire in the African Nations Cup against Equatorial Guinea.