Incredible isn’t it. It’s Manchester United’s worst team in five years but the opposition still can’t stand facing Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. First Chelsea inexplicably cancel Sunday’s fixture more than 27 hours ahead of the game; then Arsenal captain Cesc Fábregas admits the Gunners were terrified of visiting Old Trafford last week.
For the second time in less than a month United faced a blank weekend, with Chelsea following Blackpool in cancelling a Premier League fixture due to snow. But where the seasiders can blame rudimentary facilities and no undersoil heating at Bloomfield Road, Chelsea boast the most modern of facilities.
Indeed, hours after the midday Saturday cancellation of United’s trip to Stamford Bridge the Londoners could boast a beautifully manicured pitch with not a snowflake in sight. Undersoil heating and halogen lights do their job, after all. With more than a day to clear any snow surrounding the ground, public safety concerns seemed premature at best.
Moreover, Sunday afternoon, Republik of Mancunia diligently dug out Transport for London webcams, showing clear roads around the Stamford Bridge vicinity. It begs the question: what exactly about Chelsea’s poor form, injuries to key players and United’s unbeaten record prompted the desperate action more than a day ahead of a vital fixture?
In a similar vein Arsenal captain and Spanish international Fábregas says that the Gunners fear losing big games, including that at Old Trafford last Monday. No wonder – to bastardise Arsène Wenger’s infamous quote – despite being consistently told their wives are the prettiest, Arsenal hasn’t won a pageant in more than five years.
“I’m realising more and more that football is all about confidence and mentality. Sometimes you do the right thing but, if people tell you it’s not right, you start believing it, even though you were right at first,” Fábregas said.
“I think the difference on the night was that we were scared of losing but they were not scared of winning. That was a big difference that played in our heads.
“Sometimes we seem scared of losing these big games – we don’t really go for it and we’re tempted to drop back and see what the opposition do.”
Fear. It’s a word that could be applied to Chelsea, who failed to put on the fixture where Ipswich certainly could despite the blizzard conditions in East Anglia on Saturday night. As did Wasps rugby just 30 miles north in a virtually empty Adams Park, High Wycombe this afternoon. No sudden disingenuous concern for visitor safety in the Heineken Cup it seems.
Chelsea’s immediate gain may become United’s loss as fixtures pile up later in the campaign. The cancellation adds a second fixture to United’s backlog, with the postponed fixture against Blackpool now scheduled for 25 January. United’s only logical free date in the next month for the Chelsea fixture is now in between the FA Cup Third Round tie with Liverpool on 9 January and the tough trip to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham Hotspur a week later. It’s a scenario few at Old Trafford will countenance.
Then there’s the more realistic rearrangement in which Sky TV executives’ wet dream comes true – a double-header play-off with Chelsea in April or May 2011. Handily the fixture computer has already drawn United with Arsenal and Carlo Ancelotti’s side in consecutive weeks during the final month of the run-in. My my how the completely random selection process comes up these intriguing late-season fixtures season after season.
By May Arsenal will almost certainly be out of the title race though. Wenger’s record against Chelsea and United now reads 11 games with no wins. Reason to be fearful indeed.
United will now resume the Premier League campaign with a Christmas fixture list that includes a home match with Sunderland followed by trips to the Midlands to face Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City before the FA Cup tie. It’s a crucial but less-than-daunting period in which United could conceivably start the New Year with a significant lead in the Premier League. It’s hard to recall when that last happened.
Of course, near neighbours Manchester City might have something to say about that, with victory over Everton tonight ensuring that Roberto Mancini’s outfit goes top at Christmas for the first time in 81 years. City has won trophies since then, apparently.