ZURICH (AP) – Just three days after Chelsea's rancorous meeting with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, the teams will clash again. In a scheduling quirk - or the type of delicious irony favored by the soccer gods - the two sides will again face off at the Bridge Wednesday in the fourth round of the League Cup .
Fortunately, Mark Clattenburg will not be on hand to referee.
The League Cup is not what it used to be: today's modern big guns are more worried about finishing in the top four of the league itself than collecting a shiny cup. These two teams in particular are more worried about the U EFA Champions League ; Chelsea are aiming to repeat as champs in Europe's biggest competition; while Manchester United would see improvement over last year by simply getting out of the group stages.
But after United's historic 3-2 win over Chelsea on Sunday -- their first in 10 years at the Bridge -- and the refereeing controversies that accompanied it, what might have been a midweek snoozer has been elevated to a brawl.
Chelsea and United don't like one another very much. The two best teams in England over the past ten years, they have traded the Barclays Premier League title every season since 2004-05 -- a spell of dominance snapped only by Manchester City's dramatic last-second win last year. Both teams are fabulously wealthy, fabulously followed and famously loathed by fans of the other 18 teams in the Premiership. Think of it as if there were two New York Yankees in this world. When you've finished retching, you can consider just how combustible a head-to-head game would be.
Chelsea comes in Wednesday carrying a grudge. United's winner on Sunday, scored by Mexican starlet Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, was offside and the Blues also saw Fernando Torres questionably dismissed. Another player, Branislav Ivanovic, was correctly sent off for a last-man foul.
Poor refereeing decisions are not new to soccer but the man in the middle of Sunday's clash stole the headlines. Clattenburg had not refereed since 2007 after questionably dismissing Tony Hibbert at Everton's Goodison Park. He was suspended by the officials board for allegations over his personal affairs in 2008 and was vehemently criticized by then-Manchester City manager Mark Hughes for comments made to the team bench after he sent off Craig Bellamy.
If you can believe it, the aftermath of Sunday's game now has Clattenburg in uncharted water. The official has been accused of using "inappropriate language" towards two Chelsea players, one of whom is Nigerian international John Obi Mikel. Metropolitan police are now investigating the referee as the words are widely assumed to have been racist in tone. That is not proven --Clattenburg has vigorously denied that charge - yet the British media is now in full froth.
Clattenburg - considered so good by FIFA that he oversaw this summer's final at the London Games between Brazil and Mexico - has been removed from his assignments while an investigation is being carried out.
The whole imbroglio is just the latest bit of nastiness to hit the English game. Chelsea's captain, John Terry, was suspended and fined a record amount by the club for using racist language towards Queen Park Rangers' defender Anton Ferdinand last season. Terry's teammate, Ashley Cole, was branded a liar after he contorted some facts in a deposition given to the Football Association about the matter. Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand led thirty other black players around the Premier League in a protest -- which led to a rebuke from his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferdinand tweeted Tuesday evening about the Clattenburg affair, saying in part "our game is under the microscope like never before." He is correct.
But if this game draws extra attention and focus from the fans, don't expect it will draw much from either manager. Both Roberto Di Matteo and Ferguson are expected to treat the game in accordance with their goals. That means stars like Robin van Persie and Juan Mata are likely to be rested while the likes of Victor Moses, Alexander Buttner and Scott Wootton are run out.
If anything, fans might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about once the whistle blows. For all the noise around the game, the fact is, the League Cup is a minor thing. That may sound harsh considering it was once a trophy coveted by many -- indeed, United and Chelsea have won it four times apiece and dominated the last decade -- but it's the truth. The chatter around this game is far spicier than the match itself.