In five seasons at Stamford Bridge as a centre-half combining silk and steel, Frank Leboeuf won four cups and never finished outside the top six, but found his Chelsea side constantly craning their necks to find Manchester United. Four times in those years from 1997-2001 United won the Premier League and in the other one they were runners-up to Arsenal.
The earliest indications this season are that they will be looking down on Chelsea again. What is unusual, Leboeuf acknowledges in his new role as TV pundit, is that United have started so well.
"They're flying but I'm not worried," he said. "Manchester United normally struggle at the beginning of the season, win by one goal in the last minute. So what does it mean at the end of the season? This year maybe they're going to hammer everybody and win it with 100 points – or maybe they'll fall dramatically at some point. If Manchester United win against Chelsea, everybody's going to say the championship is already over and between the two Manchesters. But I doubt it. It might be a turning point for Chelsea. If they draw or win, it can be a big turning point of the season."
Like many fellow Blues supporters – which is still how he regards himself – he would regard their chances of doing so more highly if Didier Drogba was available to lead the attack. Leboeuf has rated him from the days when, having left Chelsea for Marseille, he successfully urged the French club's president to sign the little known Ivorian. "He said: 'Who is Drogba?' I said: 'He is in Guingamp, check him out.' They bought him. And never said thank you, by the way, but whatever..."
Drogba has confirmed that the facial blow he suffered against Norwich will keep him out today, and Fernando Torres is expected to be given a chance to build on the confidence gleaned from setting up both goals in the Champions' League in midweek.
The Spaniard still has yet to convince Leboeuf of his right to be considered in the same orbit as Drogba – or Wayne Rooney. "Rooney is a star. Drogba is a star. Torres [right] is still young, he has a chance to recover in two or three years and to show that he deserved to be called a star. But that's the main problem these days, reality shows now that make 'stars' of people.
Leboeuf is more impressed with the fresher talent of Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata as Chelsea reinvigorate last season's squad, and full of admiration too for the man he calls "Sir Ferguson" for doing the same thing so quickly to a squad of champions: "When I watched Manchester's first game I was asking myself: 'who are these guys?' They look like a young team and they were so strong.
"I adore Sir Alex Ferguson. He understands everything. He launched them and they're ready. For me it's amazing what he does. And I think that's the main problem with Chelsea. You can't change the coach every two years. Especially when the guy [Carlo Ancelotti] won the Double and the year after they finish second, then you sack him. I don't understand that."
Just as the emergence of younger players is refreshing both teams, so a similar process hastened Leboeuf on his way in 2001 with a new centre-half coming through. "I'm so proud of John Terry. And I thank him for being so nice to Marcel Desailly and myself in interviews for saying we supposedly brought something to his career. We saw when he was young that he was a warrior and a leader, and when I left he was already knocking at the door. I thought it was time to leave because he was going to kick me out. So I said to him, 'It's your time now' and he did the job."
In the more ruthless regime of Andre Villas-Boas, it seems even Terry, hitherto as permanent a fixture as the Chelsea Pensioners, will sit out an occasional game. But not today. Against Manchester United the heir to Leboeuf and Desailly will be needed more than ever to do the job.
Frank LeBoeuf is an analyst on ESPN soccernet Press Pass every weeknight and Sunday at 11.30pm, starting on ESPN tomorrow. Visit www.espn.co.uk/tvReuse content