Champions Chelsea?

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Not that soccer’s ubiquitous hurly-burly has remotely gone away, but its yawping volumes are even increased next week with the resumption of serious international stuff and the two-leg frenzies of the Champions League. Setting sail with various degrees of strut and confidence are Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Anticipation of the latter’s contest with Barcelona especially zaps the taste-buds and riddles the spine. Chelsea have surely settled the Premiership and their consistent nous and narrow-eyed killer instinct has fair rattled the erstwhile monarchs, Arsenal and Manchester United, who thus begin in Europe’s knockout bouts with extra trepidation.

The arrival at Chelsea from Portugal of the artfully refreshing pin-up Mourinho as manager (in combination with oodles of Russian roubles) made the winter far warmer for relishing the seething reactions of his counterparts at Highbury and Old Trafford. Cold fish Frenchman at Arsenal, the fraught Wenger, looks more pallidly cadaverous as every Saturday comes, while the red-blooded peppery Scot in Manchester, Ferguson, chomps ever more dementedly at his triple-wad of chewing gum. In the carefree, more casual Mourinho, do the two of them glimpse a flashback vision of themselves in their own breezily jocund salad days when all the vivid, youthful triumphs were still to be savoured?

As overture for next week’s bigtime, Arsenal should sail the calmer seas in this weekend’s FA Cup ties. Chelsea journey to Newcastle, always an unsettlingly threat up there, and United go to Everton’s Goodison Park, primed for an unforgiving welcome back to former pupil Rooney, ragingly good player, enragedly coarse manners — and I daresay it would be better for all concerned if, instead, Ferguson told the boy to go shopping with his girlfriend. As always before the third round, in January I put my two-penn’orth on Fulham to reach the final. Ah me, can it really be all of 30 springtimes ago that the annual wager actually paid up? All the way to Wembley. Trembley, eh? Okay, we lost to West Ham, two gift-sitters to nil, but none of us minded much because we knew our skipper, true gent and lovely, lamented hero, the onliest Bobby Moore (in his football dotage then and out to grass with us) was really a Hammer through and through.

That night Fulham (prop: radio comedian T. Trinder) threw a gloriously carousing wake at the Dorchester. I still have the menu framed (la selle d’agneau rotie Portugaise, sure, but more to the point, Ch