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Bad blood and bitterness set to fuel United vs. Chelsea

It’s quite a rare occurrence, especially in the context of the modern, politically correct Premier League, that a game between 2nd and 4th in the table is being keenly anticipated for an off-the-field rivalry as opposed to its promise as an actual game of football.

But with Manchester United in the middle of a tepid run of uninspiring results, and Chelsea struggling to recreate the form that saw them run away with the title last season, the fires have instead been stoked in the media rooms, with Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte engaging in a petty and seemingly never-ending war of words in the build up to Sunday’s game.

The feud                                  

Cast your minds all the way back to October 2016, and their first Premier League meeting. Upon his return to Stamford Bridge, Mourinho’s United were demolished 4-0 – with the fiery Conte celebrating even the last goal as if it was a World Cup final. Mourinho took umbrage with what he saw as Conte trying to “humiliate” him, and things have only gone downhill from there.

Mourinho labelled Chelsea a “defensive team” in February 2017, and the following month, after again being bested by Conte in an FA Cup tie at the Bridge, claimed he “will always be number one” at Chelsea due to his trophy-laden spells at the club.

Conte retorted in the summer, telling press he wanted to “avoid a Mourinho season”, referencing Jose’s dismal title defence during his second spell down King’s Road. Then, again, the two clashed in the press in October after Mourinho seemingly referenced Conte “crying about injuries”.

The pair were remarkably well behaved in the lead up and aftermath to Chelsea’s deserved 1-0 victory over United in November, though, and it was seemingly safe to assume that the pair had buried the hatchet and moved past it. That was, until January.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mourinho took a thinly-veiled dig at Conte for “behaving like a clown on the touchline”, and then even more strikingly, told press “I will never be suspended for match-fixing”, which was assumed to be a direct reference to Conte’s four-month ban served during his time as Juventus manager, for failing to report match-fixing at Siena, a previous club.

Conte hit back by calling Jose “a little man”, and insisting he “will not forget these comments”.

All very petty, but all of the insults and dirty laundry being aired over the past few months has no doubt added greatly to the drama of the occasion, which for me, cannot be seen as a bad thing.

On the field

But despite the mind games, football matches are ultimately always decided by the players on the field.

Both United and Chelsea are coming off midweek Champions League draws, 0-0 in Seville for United and a spirited 1-1 at home to Barcelona for the Blues.

There was plenty of discussion, as there usually is in today’s media, about Paul Pogba on Wednesday, after Mourinho chose to leave out his record signing in favour of academy prospect Scott McTominay – only to be forced into reinstating the Frenchman after just 17 minutes due to Ander Herrera’s injury.

Pogba was solid if entirely unspectacular (much like the entire United team bar David De Gea) in his 75 minutes, but the situation itself has created fresh concerns at Old Trafford – there is a certain awkwardness and distrust created when a manager drops a high-profile player for a big game, only to have to call on him minutes later.

But with Herrera now on the casualties list, Pogba is almost certain to start on Sunday, most likely as part of a midfield three with McTominay and ex-Chelsea man Nemanja Matic. United will line up with Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and one of Mourinho’s revolving cast of right-wingers up top – likely Marcus Rashford.

At the back, it’ll be up to a less than convincing backline of Valencia, Smalling, Lindelof and Young to try and offer more protection to their goalkeeper than was given in Seville.

For Chelsea, despite regret over gifting Barcelona such a vital away goal on Tuesday, they are likely to head north full of confidence after going head-to-head with the best team on the planet and making a real game of it. Willian, who looked immense in striking Barcelona’s woodwork twice before curling home a lovely effort to open the scoring, should retain his place as part of Chelsea’s attacking trio.

Eden Hazard led the line against Barca, but complained of a lack of touches in the central role, saying “You don’t get a lot of balls. I might have touched 25 balls that night, and 15 were flying towards my head. That’s not really playing to my qualities.”

The Belgian’s clear desire to return to the left-wing, plus the return to fitness of Alvaro Morata, will likely see Hazard’s wishes fulfilled against United, with Morata set to return to the lineup against the team he thought he was joining last summer.

Danny Drinkwater may get a look-in alongside N’Golo Kante, who against Barcelona returned to the destructive form that has been somewhat lacking at times this season, and Andreas Christensen will be looking to bounce back strongly after his errant pass gifted the all-important away goal to Lionel Messi on Tuesday.

Prediction

Let’s be honest – neither side will be harbouring dreams of anything more than second place in the league this season.

Manchester City have been too good, and got too far ahead to be threatened by anybody at this stage. It did seem at one point that United were nailed on to follow their local rivals home to a comfortable second place, but their sputtering start to 2018 has left them just two points clear of Liverpool behind them – and only three ahead of Chelsea.

It’s a game that could have huge ramifications on the Champions League places, one that neither can comfortably afford to lose.

Given that, and the amount of pride on the line between two coaches that clearly resent each other, and we are looking at what will surely be a tight and nervy game. It pains me to say it, but when you factor in the presence of the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League, all roads lead to a 0-0 for me.

As someone who’s paying a premium to attend on Sunday, I really hope I’m wrong.

Trade adds edge to Celtics-Cavs rivalry as NBA season begins

When the NBA season gets underway early on Wednesday morning (UK time), it will do so with a genuine blockbuster.

A repeat of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals would have been an entertaining spectacle under any circumstances, but after an unprecedented trade that sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston in exchange for fellow All-Star Isaiah Thomas, there now exists that crucial ingredient to any stand-out rivalry: bad blood.

In a league where it has become commonplace, perhaps to the detriment of the NBA as a whole, for superstar players to join forces in an attempt to maximise their chances of glory, Irving’s decision to request a trade away from the Cleveland Cavaliers should be respected.

Ever since LeBron James returned to his hometown team in 2014, Irving has had the easy life.

James remains the best player in the NBA, and his unselfish playing style and likeable personality have drawn an outstanding ensemble cast to the Cavaliers, resulting in three back-to-back trips to the NBA finals, with an NBA Championship coming in 2016.

Ambition

But all of the success left Irving feeling somewhat marginalised. Drafted by the Cavaliers in 2011, he spent his early NBA career as the unquestioned leader and star of the team, before being firmly pushed into a number two role upon ‘King’ James’ triumphant return.

And so Irving chose to cast off on his own, saying publicly it was his best chance to develop as a player.

“It was my time to do what was best for me in terms of my intentions, and that’s going after something bigger than myself and being in an environment that was conducive to my potential,” he said.

“Now [I’m] taking that next steps as a 25-year-old evolving man and being the best basketball player I can be.”

But despite it being refreshing to see a player in Irving’s position want to lead his own team, it would be a stretch to call the news of his trade request truly shocking. The real surprise was his destination.

Loyalty

‘I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word’

Isaiah Thomas has always been the underdog. Whereas Irving was the prized #1 draft pick when he entered the league in 2011, the 5ft 9in (yes, really) Thomas was taken with the 60th and final pick by the Sacramento Kings.

Seen by most as a talented player without the physical profile to ever grind out his place in the land of giants that is the NBA, Thomas has improved his game by leaps and bounds each season. He has defied the perceived limits of his diminutive frame to average a remarkable 29 points per game for the Celtics in the 2016-17, a tally good enough for 3rd highest in the league.

The 28-year-old point guard has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and that passion resonated strongly with the hardcore Boston fanbase.

That connection between player and franchise has rarely ever seen a better example than April of this year, when Thomas’ sister Chyna tragically died in a car accident just one day before the start of the Celtics’ play-off series against the Chicago Bulls.

Thomas chose to suit up and play that very next day, and despite being visibly emotional throughout, managed to lead the Celtics to a 4-2 series win against the Bulls, eventually falling short against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Injury

But in the often cold, analytics-driven world of the NBA, loyalty between player and franchise can often be a one-way street. When Irving, a younger player on a longer contract, became available, Thomas was the key asset in the Boston offer that persuaded Cleveland to do business.

Thomas, never one to disguise his feelings, has since voiced his thoughts on the trade.

“That s**t hurt. It hurt a lot… I get it: this is a business. Danny [Ainge, Celtics general manager] is a businessman, and he made a business move. I don’t agree with it, just personally, and I don’t think the Boston Celtics got better by making this trade.

“I think my trade can show people. I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word.”

Unfortunately, Thomas is unlikely to play in the season-opener due to a nagging hip injury that many feel was a key factor in Boston’s decision to trade him.

But with Irving’s immediate return to his old stomping ground will serve as the perfect introduction to what is sure to be one of the most dramatic NBA seasons in memory.