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Perhaps José Mourinho’s most extraordinary achievement in his two seasons in charge of Chelsea is to make Manchester United popular.
Once the land was awash with ABUs – supporters of Anyone But United – but when Chelsea travel to Old Trafford on Sunday, the majority of neutrals will be wanting the home side to win.
That is in part down to Chelsea’s recent domination of the Premiership – but only in part. Their wealth raises hackles, and it is telling with regard to the relative strength of each squad that instinct suggests that United moving six points clear tomorrow would lead to a closer title race than Chelsea pulling level, but the issue really is attitude.
United in their 1990s pomp were far from blameless – as memories of a pack of baying players pursuing Andy D’Urso after he had awarded Middlesbrough a penalty attest – but those were parlour games by comparison with Chelsea’s transgressions. Neither Sir Alex Ferguson nor Arsène Wenger are good losers – indeed, the distressing thought is that it may not be possible to be both gracious and successful in modern football. But even in his days as a bawling touchline watch-tapper, Ferguson never made personal attacks on referees.
Tomorrow’s fixture, under normal circumstances, would have been refereed by Graham Poll. There may be an element of calculation to Ferguson’s insistence on his qualities as a referee, but the fact is that, his World Cup embarrassment of booking the same player three times in a game notwithstanding, he is England’s best official. Perhaps he is a touch self-regarding, but it is probably necessary to have a level of arrogance in order to make tough decisions in testing circumstances.
These, though, are not normal circumstances, because Chelsea have declared war on Poll since their defeat at Tottenham, a game in which the referee disallowed a Didier Drogba goal and sent off their captain John Terry. Both decisions were debatable – although certainly not the blatant errors Mourinho portrayed them as. But the controversy was really ignited by Ashley Cole’s subsequent claim that Poll had told him that Chelsea needed to be brought in line.
The image of Poll as Travis Bickle snarling into the mirror as he metes out vigilante justice is probably not what English football needs, but that does not alter the fact that he rather than Howard Webb should be in charge tomorrow afternoon. What is worse is that this is a calculated policy on the part of Mourinho, as he admits in The Italian Job, the book written by Gianluca Vialli with Gabriele Marcotti.
“In Portugal,” he said, “I can create big problems for referees. Here I can’t do a thing. If I were in Portugal, and a referee gave decisions which cost us points, I would say ‘that referee has something against us’ so the next time he referees us he is under pressure. In England, I can’t do that because nobody remembers who he is, nobody wants to talk about him.”
They do now. Mourinho pointed out after that Spurs defeat that Chelsea had taken just one point from the two games they had played under Poll this season; no mention of the fact that in the other game, a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa, most people felt Claude Makelele should have been sent off. In fact, from the statistics Mourinho uses to prove Poll’s supposed animus against his side, an equally absurd but opposite conclusion could be drawn: that Chelsea cannot win without a referee they can intimidate.
Tomorrow could be a great contest between the Premiership’s likely top two, but it is hard to believe that come the evening, the main topic of debate will not be refereeing. That is sad, but it explains United’s new-found popularity.