The Peter Corrigan Column: Jose v Rafa: masters of a whole new bawl game

It is strange how quickly Wenger and Ferguson have been elbowed to the periphery of the title debate
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The horseracing analogy is apt because two bookmakers have already paid out on Chelsea winning the Premiership title. We shouldn't complain about any sign of generosity from that fraternity, but this is a ludicrous, mocking gesture that owes more to cheap publicity than genuine judgement.

The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, is right to condemn it, and recalls that bookies did the same thing when Manchester United were well ahead in 1998 and Arsenal came through to win at the death. Arsenal were similarly overtaken by United in 2003 and Wenger warns: "What looks obvious in September can be completely different in November. I'm not as pessi-mistic about it as some people."

Sir Alex Ferguson would say the same, if he was speaking to anyone. There is probably not much money involved, but if I was one of the lucky punters receiving this early return I would be tempted to visit another bookie and take advantage of the generous odds about Arsenal, United or Liverpool. It might even be worth backing all three.

It is strange how quickly Wenger and Ferguson have been elbowed to the periphery of the title debate. We used to live off their little tiffs, and now Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez have captured the bitching rights. There was a happy time long ago when our discussions about football revolved around the players and the teams. Now we tend to hang slavishly on the words of the managers.

Not that this isn't fertile ground for the boisterous repartee we scribes revere, but it does get a little repetitive. Suddenly, there's a new bawl game. Mourinho has proved a master of the art of provocative utterances and his words have acquired strength because of the success of his team. But, in Benitez, he has found an adversary whose deadpan delivery carries a sting. Ferguson and Wenger's verbals are potent because they have at their root a mutual dislike. Mourinho and Benitez carry an Iberian respect for each other, and their words are part of the business of destabilising their opponent. It's nothing personal, as the Mafia say.

After Wednesday's deadlock, it was accepted that Liverpool seemed to be more in charge without seriously threatening the impregnability of Chelsea's defence. Clearly, something has to change if we are to see a positive result today. Mourinho, with a hurtful bluntness, says that if they don't win today, Liverpool will be out of Premiership contention.

Benitez counters by saying that Chelsea are afraid of his team, and challenges them to come out of their shell. Crafty words, and aided in their penetration by the great Johann Cruyff's criticisms of Mourinho, whom he puts down as "a young manager with still a lot to learn". Mourinho doesn't have the air of a man who enjoys being prodded in the ribs like that, but can he be goaded into attacking mode?

His team sit high on their perch thanks to a style that has yielded only one goal in seven League games while they have scored 13. Only a sudden urge is likely to persuade him to answer his critics by attempting to put down this insurrection with a flourish. Victory, especially one achieved with style, would add all the necessary credence to his boast that it will be over by Christmas.

Defeat would corrode the feeling of supremacy that Chelsea had so quickly established this season and send a surge of hope through the veins of their rivals. For the rest of us it will be a blow for freedom if the clean-sheet crusaders have to call in at the laundry on the way home. It is ridiculous to demand attacking football for the sake of it, but it wouldn't half brighten up the place.

Are Liverpool capable of winning, regardless of how Chelsea play? Their towering striker Peter Crouch will be one of the key components of the answer to that question. I seem to be in a minority, but I was unimpressed by his overall performance on Wednesday. He played well in the first half, but on two or three occasions he didn't seem to jump his height when the ball was dangerously crossed into the Chelsea goalmouth during the second half. Sven Goran Eriksson is said to be considering him for England, but he will have to borrow from the Duncan Ferguson book of aerial aggression to make a bigger impact today.

A Liverpool win would certainly cheer Manchester United, who seem nonplussed by Roy Keane's keenness to depart Old Trafford. It is difficult to imagine that United will give up Keane's influence at the club without some resistance. Keane promised that his unexpected announcement on Thursday was not the opening of negotiations for a new contract, but if there are still one or two seasons of life in his heart and legs, why should they let another club have it? It wouldn't be a surprise if Keane was back in the United team in the new year, but whether he is destined to join them in another campaign at the top is another of the imponderables that may depend on today's outcome at Anfield.

Mourinho confesses to a feeling that the whole world is willing them to lose. And his instinct is correct. The uncommitted will be solidly behind Liverpool. The health of the season depends on them.

Worthy but bound for oblivion

At Brighton last week, the Government were seen to be bathing themselves in the early glints of reflected glory from our 2012 Olympic victory. The Labour Party conference was treated to a speech by Sebastian Coe, for which he received deserved applause, and an attempt by DCMS Minister Tessa Jowell to chalk it up as another (?) Government success.

You have to admire her nerve. Having spent most of her evangelical zeal on the promotion of a chain of super-casinos around the country plus an open-all-hours drinking culture, she ends up claiming credit for an outdoor activity.

Meanwhile, the Government and their nodding dogs at UK Sport have been busily bad-mouthing a report which could bring far more long-term sporting benefit to this country than a one-off Games. Former sports ministers Colin Moynihan and Kate Hoey have produced a most worthy and comprehensive document called Raising the Bar, which has nothing to do with free-for-all drinking opportunities and everything to do with presenting a comprehensive blueprint for the future of sport in a country crying out for a clear plan.

You wouldn't expect the Government to be gushing about it, because it recommends the quashing of their quangos which are clogging up progress. But the case made by Moynihan and Hoey, who come from opposite ends of the political world, is unanswerable, particularly in the matter of sport in schools and the unrelenting selling-off of playing fields.

Unfortunately, their work will be back-heeled into oblivion. This Government are interested in sport only when they can ponce off its success.