Champions have the most to lose as the Big Four go to war

Who has the most to lose? On the weekend that the Big Four go to war, there is one man whom defeat will damage the most. He has tried to face down the discontent within his own club; now Jose Mourinho will have to make the decision that could define Chelsea's season.

This time it will not all be about whether he picks Andrei Shevchenko, although his inclusion will be a cause for debate. Instead, it will be whether Petr Cech starts in goal for Chelsea against Liverpool for the first time since 14 October with a metal plate protecting his skull. The indications last night were that Cech will be in goal at Anfield this lunchtime with the adapted rugby headguard that he must wear for the next three years of his career.

Some match to walk back into after surgery on your skull. Some state for his club to be in. As Cech sipped tea in the House of Commons this week with his team-mates, Chelsea's squad may have looked becalmed but there is no doubt that the players have been aware of the fissures within their club. It may only be six points separating themselves from Manchester United but today has come to represent a great deal more for Mourinho.

If John Terry is not passed fit, how does he cope with the threat of Peter Crouch? If Cech is truly ready then is he also ready for the blood and thunder of Anfield? And what of Shevchenko, whose presence takes on a symbolic status in the disagreements with the board? In May 2005, Roman Abramovich watched a Champions' League dream go up in smoke at Anfield. Will today be just as significant in the modern Chelsea era?

Michael Ballack said that it would be in the "big games" that Chelsea would show their true selves this season. "There are moments during a season that are crucial, that if you lose games it becomes difficult and if you win it's easier," he said. "Maybe now is a big moment when the big decisions will be made. This weekend could be a big turning point. We could go to three points, stay at six points or go out to nine. We don't want to lose points as the distance would be too big, but it's difficult for both us and Manchester United."

United's £20m bid yesterday for Ballack's former Bayern Munich team-mate Owen Hargreaves will have told Chelsea everything they need to know about the resolve of the Premiership leaders to win Sir Alex Ferguson's ninth title. It is a bold move that announces that the old guard of this division will pay the price, however extravagant, for the players they believe can deliver them a title. An offer of £20m for a holding midfielder? It has the decadence of an Abramovich signing but it reasserts United's power and intent.

It may just be all the encouragement that the unusually reluctant Chelsea board needs to buy Mourinho his new defender this month.

In the mean time, Ferguson can point to another advantage that his opposite number lacks. There is not an injury among the United players, unless you count Ferguson's reservations about Alan Smith. This time, the Scot's team are not the embattled strugglers closing in on the title: they have a rare sense of calm about them.

The last time United won the title, four years ago, they were five points behind Arsenal with 15 matches to play. This time Ferguson has the luxury of being able to consider whether or not Arsenal, his opponents tomorrow at the Emirates Stadium, are realistically even outside contenders for the Premiership title.

"You can never say it completely [that Arsenal are out] - I think the most important thing is ourselves," he said. "We've got to try to keep a consistency from now until the end of the season that helps us win the League.

"It is going to be consistency that decides it, no question. Our form is good but there have been examples of us being charitable at West Ham and Newcastle, and these are danger signs for us. We have to make sure nothing like that happens over these last 15 matches."

It is the sixth of Rafael Benitez's Premiership meetings with Jose Mourinho today and, if he is to present any sign of progress to Anfield, then the Liverpool manager cannot lose this one like he has the other five matches.

"The victory over Watford last weekend has not taken the edge off the smarting wound of the manner of Arsenal's 6-3 Carling Cup quarter-final win. If there ever was a time to beat Mourinho's Chelsea then surely it is now.

"We know we need to improve against the top sides, it's clear we can do it, we have the confidence to do it," Benitez said. "In the Champions' League, in the cups, we can beat them but we also need to take our chances before they do. If we scored first against the top teams, it would be a different game.

"It doesn't guarantee you will win, but you can control the game more if you score first."

There have been slips in the Premiership for Manchester United this season, against West Ham United most notably, but only one team can truly claim to have embarrassed them.

Ferguson had the good grace to recall the defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford in September with the acknowledgement that Arsène Wenger's team were the "far better side". And it was that result that has sustained the Arsenal manager's faith in his young side.

"In our mind it's a game that we want absolutely to win, I tell you," Wenger said. "We love to win. We want to reduce the gap to Manchester United as quickly as possible and we want to continue our run because we're in good form. We're involved in nearly every competition, even the championship, and you never know."

In fact, Wenger said that after beating United in September that he never expected that Sir Alex Ferguson's side would be 15 points ahead in the Premiership come January.

There was a time when that might be have been seen as a touch provocative but what was once the most intriguing rivalry in football is not the weekend's potentially most spectacular act.

That will be Mourinho, his mood come this afternoon and whoever he chooses to battle with next.

Two players who have something to prove at the Emirates Stadium tomorrow

*MATHIEU FLAMINI

By Glenn Moore

Gilberto Silva has been one of Arsenal's key players this season - according to some pundits and statistics the key player - but the Brazilian World Cup winner is suspended for tomorrow's match having been sent off against Blackburn at Ewood Park last weekend. In his place will be the versatile Frenchman Mathieu Flamini.

Signed amid controversy from Marseilles in 2004, Flamini, 22, has been a reliable performer for Arsenal without being able to nail down a regular place. Following his impressive display against Liverpool in November, this is another opportunity for him to show he is the natural heir to the 30-year-old Gilberto as Arsenal's midfield enforcer alongside Cesc Fabregas. There is plenty of competition for the role, as Fabrice Muamba's form on loan to Birmingham has demonstrated.

* MICHAEL CARRICK

The £18m summer signing has gradually established himself as a significant presence in the Old Trafford midfield, even scoring recently. Yet there remains a sense that he does not command a game to the extent his talent suggests he should. Tomorrow he will be in direct comparison to Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's extravagantly gifted Spanish youngster. It is an opportunity for the 25-year-old Geordie to argue his case for a central role in the England team. It is also, with Owen Hargreaves on Sir Alex Ferguson's shopping list, a chance to prove he has the personality to be at the heart of the United midfield for years to come.

Carrick was for a long time a target of Arsène Wenger, but despite playing well against the Gunners, he has never been a winner against them, for West Ham, Tottenham, or United, yet.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick