Rafa Benitez and Fernando Torres' finest afternoon in English football came at Old Trafford. A Saturday lunchtime in March 2009 saw their Liverpool team pump Manchester United 4-1. United led through Cristiano Ronaldo but Torres was soon terrorising Nemanja Vidic, who was eventually sent off for one desperate challenge too many. It was the same week that the Liverpool pair had shared the joy of destroying Real Madrid 4-0 in the Champions League. Their stock had never been higher. It has never reached those levels since.
In different colours, Benitez, the unwanted interim, and Torres, the most public and costly of transfer failures, arrive at Old Trafford off the back of another European night, but a 1-0 defeat to Steau Bucharest finds them at a nadir rather than their 2009 zenith levels. As Benitez grumblingly directed from the sidelines, Torres put in another performance to remind of how risky it is paying £50 million for one solitary footballer. Sluggish and on a wavelength somewhere over the Carpathian Mountains rather than in Bucharest's National Stadium, Torres tottered around aimlessly. He was by no means Chelsea's only misfire, since Juan Mata and Eden Hazard were both quiet but this was another Blues performance of the walking dead, a team marking time until something changes.
The Europa League and FA Cup are all that remains of a season of seven trophies, and the former is a consolation. Chelsea is an unhappy club, a confused club, and many of their recent performances have followed those emotions. Benitez might now actually be more popular at Old Trafford than he is at Stamford Bridge. Sunday, though, may provide Chelsea with an opportunity to puncture another's clubs ambitions, and reduce Manchester United to a single target.
Talk of a treble was little but hype, and especially at such an early juncture of the season, and so a plain old double will have to suffice for Manchester United. That in itself, would still look difficult for United. Chelsea are no mean opponent and Manchester City lie in wait at some point. The Premier League title will remain the priority, and especially after last season's last-minute denial.
Chelsea may consider that for all their civil war, there might be one raging at United too. Though in Wayne Rooney's case, his latest fall-out with Sir Alex Ferguson looks like a singular battle against the system rather than the bemusement with Benitez that lies at the heart of Chelsea's current battle. Rooney faces a test of his professionalism in the light of his latest reverse. Being dropped from his team's biggest match of the season is not something that happens to the indispensable, the star players. His cause has not been helped by his team matching Madrid without him until Nani's red card.
Ferguson's managerial career, right back to his East Stirlingshire days, have been built from turning a reverse into a positive, a feeling of being wronged against into a unifying force. Manchester United feel a definite sense of injustice after the intervention of red Mancunian's least favourite Turkish insurance agent. They are also seeking to win their first FA Cup since 2004. A trophy Ferguson made his own in the 1990s, it has evaded him since the rolling over of Millwall in Cardiff nine years ago. Only Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes of his current squad have won the trophy. Rio Ferdinand missed out when banned for his missing of a drugs test, Rooney did not arrive until the following summer.
And then there is the decided enmity between the two managers. Benitez has barely concealed his contempt for Ferguson, even getting swept into the rather childish Liverpudlian trait of never referring to his knighthood. "Mr Ferguson" meanwhile has been viciously dismissive, sarcastically calling Benitez a "genius" at one point, and "clown" in the next breath. "I'm not going to kick anyone when they are lying down," was Sir Alex's latest comment on someone he now views as a former rival though Ferguson would clearly relish robbing Benitez of a career opportunity. His opponent would enjoy helping whittling away a treble into a single.
Manchester United player to watch - Wayne Rooney
Even if he should be sat in the stands, or even back in his Prestbury armchair, there is little doubt of the name on everyone's lips ahead of this game. Ferguson said on Friday that Rooney will be a United player next season, even giving his word that he would be, but Chelsea might be the type of club that may fancy Rooney if he should become available. For the moment, and in the light of Robin Van Persie looking somewhat tired of late, Rooney should be required and able to prove a point to his doubters, a group that would look to include his manager.
Chelsea player to watch - Marko Marin
If there is a player to embody the Benitez tenure at Chelsea, it is Marin. Benitez's belief in rotation and a big squad have been nixed by the rather bare resources on offer at Stamford Bridge. There is definite quality on offer but not quantity and the German is yet to suggest he offers the former. One of a trio of playmakers bought in the summer and much the lesser to Hazard and Oscar, Marin's performances have too often been confused and ineffective. With the battle for fourth place on, and Bucharest to be beaten, Marin will most probably play a role at Old Trafford.
Key battle: Jonny Evans v Fernando Torres
Nemanja Vidic is not the type to be readily afraid yet Torres used to give him the heebie-jeebies. Torres, deep in his gloom, may even have hoped to take on his old whipping boy but even that may not be granted to him. Vidic played two games in quick succession against Norwich City and Real Madrid, something supposedly beyond him in his long recovery from serious injury. In his stead will come Evans, unlucky not to play against Real in what has been his best season in United colours. Perhaps Demba Ba will play instead. Perhaps even Torres would be happy with that. His last visit to Old Trafford was the scene of the horrendous miss – in September 2011 – that may just personify his disastrous move to Chelsea.
Trivia: Manchester United have faced Chelsea 11 times in the FA Cup, and won eight of those encounters. Their last meeting was in the 2007 final, where Didier Drogba's extra-time goal won a truly dreadful match. United defeated Chelsea four times in the 1990s in this competition, including in the 1994 final.
Stats: Chelsea have only lost one of their last 38 FA Cup games outright, winning 31 and drawing six. (Opta)
Odds: United are 1.72 favourites, Chelsea a decent price at 4.50, and a draw and henceforth a replay is on offer at 3.75.
Prediction: Both teams' Euro hangovers to have an effect, and a high-scoring draw and a replay to result, something which is probably less of a concern to Ferguson than Benitez.
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