Sunday 23 March ~
What a treat. It's the second Grand Slam Sunday of the season. There could be several more, of course, covering all the fixtures between the top four. Bigger audiences, greater advertising revenues for Sky, even more global brand awareness for the world's league. Could it happen? We should dare to dream. In the meantime, the two matches today promise to be packed full of incident. Not necessarily in terms of goalmouth action. They will be tense occasions that could help to decide the outcome of the title. And because all the matches between these four teams are loaded with significance these days there will always be scores to settle. Chelsea, for example, are still expecting an apology for an incident that happened in their last League encounter with Arsenal.
Avram Grant didn't want to mention any names and one can assume that Chelsea will be looking out for a courier until the last seconds before the match. But if no message of contrition is forthcoming, you dread to think what the effect will be. Arsenal fans might respond that the tackle Grant is referring to was a reaction to an assault by Chelsea's captain on an Arsenal player moments earlier. But perhaps that in turn was prompted by a previous incident whose roots lay in something that happened two seasons ago...
We could go on, but that way madness lies. Sir Alex likes a dash of madness, though, as he explained when discussing Man Utd's match with Liverpool. Fergie and Rafa have also been competing for the attention of today's referee, the austere Steve Bennett. Both seems to assume that the referee will favour the other team unless they accuse him of doing so in advance, prompting a volte face that will lead their side to getting the balance of the decisions (or "fair treatment" as they would see it).
If Grand Slam Sundays has been part of our football calendar at the start of the 1980s, Sir Bobby Robson's Ipswich would have been one of the competing teams, alongside Liverpool, Lawrie McMenemy's Southampton and the Villa side led first by Ron Saunders then Tony Barton, a man who won as many European Cups as Sir Alex and Rafa and one more than Arsène Wenger. The managers of that era may have used the press to stoke up feuds and pressurise referees but, if they did, no one remembers it. Some headlines were made by Sir Bobby this week when he called for Ashley Cole to be left out of the England squad for the match with France because of his behaviour towards referee Mike Riley during the recent match with Spurs. Sir Bobby despairs of a player who is "rude, aggressive and disrespectful to opponents and officials alike" but on that basis he might just as well call for today's managers to be barred from attending their teams' matches. After all, the world is watching.