Sir Alex Ferguson's blood may be boiling after John Terry escaped a suspension to face his Manchester United side today. But it is not the Chelsea captain - cleared to play after having the red card he was given against Manchester City rescinded on appeal - whose presence could be the key factor as last season's top two prepare to do battle again at Stamford Bridge.
While, both manager's will be hoping for a less volatile match today, after a post-match punch-up at this fixture in April between the United substitutes and Chelsea's ground staff led to an FA charge for both teams, Ferguson knows his side have a real fight on their hands to take anything away from their trip to London While Terry has been commanding at the back this season for Chelsea, it is in midfield where they have looked most dangerous.
The diminutive Deco has delighted with his deft touch and artistry, but it is Frank Lampard who has just picked up from where he left off last season - and every season since 2003. His consistency and goalscoring prowess are often taken for granted, yet coveted by his Premier League midfield rivals. Lampard, 30, is just two away from 100 career league goals and Nigel Spackman, the former Chelsea midfielder, believes he is instrumental for the Londoners.
He said. "If you don't have Petr Cech, Terry or Didier Drogba, it's a blow, but not as much as if Lampard is not playing. Not many can make the runs he can or get the goals he does. He can get you 20 a season from midfield. It is great to have someone in the team who you know is a game-breaker." While the coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, has been delighted by Lampard's form, he spent his pre-match press conference talking up United's returning winger Cristiano Ronaldo.
Scolari coached Ronaldo with Portugal and described how he likes the Manchester United winger as a father likes a son. "Now he is one of the three best players in the world," Scolari said. "I said that two years ago, and I repeat it now. "When I was at Portugal, I had to choose three players every year (for Fifa World Player of the Year). One year I chose Didier Drogba as one of my three. Another year, I wrote John Terry. Another year I wrote Frank Lampard.
"Now these three players are with me, and that's very good for me. Maybe next season, Cristiano is with me. Very good. If he wants to change, I'll open the door to that." Scolari's comment may have been tongue-in-cheek but he is aware of the threat Ronaldo will pose when United look to close their gap on Chelsea to three points. Ferguson has all of his big-name striking quartet available for the game - though Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov are not fully fit.
And the United chief claims he isn't afraid to unleash all four on the pitch at the same time. After all, a man who once threw Peter Schmeichel up front in a desperate bid to score is hardly likely to be fazed by utilising a front-line, also including Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, who would cost well in excess of £100million. Ferguson said: "You would have to sacrifice something but I once ended up with Schmeichel as a centre-forward, so I am sure I could end up with those four as well." Ferguson could certainly do with a few of the 42 goals Ronaldo scored last term with United in danger of having their dreams of a Premier League title hat-trick wrecked unless they can find a winning formula soon.
Defeat at Stamford Bridge would leave them nine points adrift of Luiz Felipe Scolari's men. Little wonder, therefore, that after a 30-minute cameo against Villarreal on Wednesday, Ferguson is giving considerable thought to handing Ronaldo the recall he craves despite only having major ankle surgery two months ago. "Cristiano is nibbling in my ear all the time. He is bursting to play," said Ferguson. "The boy was on fire on Wednesday. He was revved up to do really well.
"When you think he has had an operation, has been in rehab for two months and had not played since May 21. It was a big ask for him. But you have to say his performance level was outstanding. "He has trained very well and is a natural athlete, so I have no qualms on that score. I just have to decide whether it is the right time." Meanwhile, Ferguson is convinced Chelsea are acutely aware Manchester United could end the Blues' incredible 84-game unbeaten run at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
It is 2005 since the west London outfit lost on home soil. "Chelsea know fine well Manchester United can win on Sunday," said Ferguson."They are a good team and have started very well this season. But with the ability we have it is not a daunting task." Scolari is treating the game like any other. "The challenge when I came to England was to win the Premier League, not just single games. "The challenge is to win all the games, not only games against Man United." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org