Match of the season (part 1): The rise and rise of a fall guy

Ronaldo, United's World Cup bête noire, and Drogba, the striker once thought to be on his way out of Chelsea, are early contenders for Footballer of the Year - make your choice today
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The Independent Football

In the post-World Cup playground of perceived umbrage-taking and insult-trading, there was about as much prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney combining today to damage Chelsea's challenge for a third successive title as Didier Drogba currently heading the Premiership scoring leader board, on eight goals, with Portsmouth's Nwankwo Kanu.

At Old Trafford in the summer, Ronaldo all but had his suitcases packed in the fallout which followedRooney's dismissal against Portugal in Germany; while around Stamford Bridge, the belief was that the Ivory Coast player's role as first-choice striker would be usurped by the Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko. Drogba had not been an economy purchase himself, yet the well-connected master technician, deemed to be the world's best in his position, trumped that at a touch under £30 million.

Not only have both Ronaldo and Drogba remained with their clubs, they have flourished to a point where, though neither has entirely dispensed with a propensity for theatrics, they could be early contenders for Footballer of the Year.

Drogba's tally in all competitions is 14, but it is his acceptance of responsibility as target man as much as his potency around goal that has been revelatory this season, although whether it is the stimulus of Shevchenko's presence that has provoked him to display his prowess, or merely that he has developed and prospered under Jose Mourinho, remains open to debate, which will continue at Old Trafford today.

Meanwhile, United followers will continue to forgive Ronaldo being the Premiership player with the most shots off target - 32 in all, including that candidate for miss of the season at Sheffield United last Saturday - while he continues to embarrass defenders and to provide a superior service from either flank, as he emphasises that he is far more than a show pony.

Both are shaping the destiny of their sides this season, and their respective influences today are among the likely vignettes within a passion play at Old Trafford; an event which, unusually, has caused the pre-match hyper-bole to be focused on the participants rather than the managers, who have refused to engage in pre-match hostilities.

True, there has been some gentle verbal sparring, mainly about the effectiveness of the referee, Howard Webb, but no intimidatory punches thrown. Sir Alex Ferguson is untouchable, anyway, and if you speak to United's players there is an underlying respect for Mourinho which emanates from their own manager's admiration for what he has achieved. The Scot sees much of himself as a young man in today's adversary.

Among the players, a fascinating renewal of the fixture, the first since that World Cup quarter-final, matches Rooney, England's organ-grinder in more senses than one, against Ricardo Carvalho; it thrusts together Ronaldo and England's John Terry and Frank Lampard; while another England man, Gary Neville, is rather more concerned about his own striker Louis Saha following that missed penalty against Celtic, which according to some sources could cost United £100m if they now fail to qualify from the group stage of the Champions' League.

The United full-back apparently told Neil Lennon before the kick was taken that Saha might miss it because his "head had gone". The former Fulham man has been stood down from penalty-taking duties. Ronaldo, who has been nominated instead should referee Webb oblige the hosts this afternoon, has raised the temperature somewhat by suggesting that Chelsea are "about the same as last year", despite the arrivals of Shev-chenko and Michael Ballack.

There is, of course, an element of truth in that assertion. However, Ferguson himself is too much the old sage to get drawn into the argument. "I think they have added three very good players to their squad this year: Ballack, Shevchenko and Ashley Cole," he said. "That is three great additions; there is no question about that. We have added Michael Carrick, but we have also got Paul Scholes back from his injury and Ole Gunnar Solsk-jaer [who is unavailable today]."

The United manager added: "It's two strong squads. They have maybe got a bit more experience internationally but we are emerging. We have got great consistency in our game and you don't normally get that from young players, so there is a good maturity developing in the club, and there is a fantastic team spirit there and that is helping us more than anything."

In the summer, as anticipated, Chelsea opted for renewal, with the import of Ballack, Shev-chenko and Ashley Cole. United, apart from Carrick, who has still to justify his fee and the reputation that accompanied it, have undergone a regeneration programme; Solskjaer has been rebuilt after a long-term injury; Scholes has returned to his best form after his eye problem; the seemingly ageless Ryan Giggs has adjusted to new demands placed on him; and Saha, notwithstanding that penalty miss, has emerged as considerably more than a squad player, though whether 4-5-1 suits him is arguable.

Chelsea are reminiscent of the old days when new cars bore that sign "running in", while United, dependent on familiar, reliable parts, have begun this Premiership campaign nicely tuned.

"We set out criteria for the team this year and a good start was one of them," said Ferguson. "But you are never sure, and coming out of a World Cup you are just hoping [the players] all come back fit and ready for the challenge. The decision to go to South Africa, for instance, was a big one, because we went without all the World Cup players. Wayne Rooney played his first full game against Fulham in the opening match after playing half a game against Porto [in the Amsterdam Tournament] and got sent off, then he had a three-match suspension. So it required everyone to dig in, and the players we were using at that time did fantastically well and will do so again when required."

United's resulting three-point lead is a luxury that, in recent seasons, has been unfamiliar to Ferguson. "It's a great opportunity for us," is as far as he will consider such an advantage. "In the last two years Chelsea have had the fantastic position of being nine, 10 points ahead of us and very difficult to peg back. But we have got out of the blocks quickly this season and for the first time we are in front with a prospect of maybe going six points clear, which would have them chasing us rather than us chasing them."

But would it be all over by November if Mourinho's men fail today? The Scot knows better than that. In eight meetings between the managers, he has only once emerged triumphant. The sorcerer has too much regard for his apprentice to start making any assumptions.

Fergie V Jose: Feud and drink fuel love-hate relationship

Diving Divide

Referees should watch videos of teams to prepare them for diving.

Sir Alex Ferguson after United's loss to Porto in the 2004 Champions' League

He was a bit emotional [after seeing United] dominated by a club with only 10 per cent of his budget.

Jose Mourinho

Bottle Job

He was certainly full of it, calling me 'Boss' and 'Big Man' when we had our post-match drink after the first leg [of last year's Carling Cup semi-final]. But it would help if his greetings were accompanied by a decent glass of wine. What he gave me was paint-stripper.

Ferguson

When we go to Old Trafford for the second leg on my birthday, I will take a beautiful bottle of Portuguese wine.

Mourinho

Official Strikes

Now [head of referees] Keith Hackett is meeting Mourinho, what is going on in this world? Is preference going out to Chelsea because they've had a bad decision? It's absolutely ludicrous.

Ferguson

I promise you if one day I have a ball that is two metres inside my goal and the referee doesn't allow it I do not speak about referees for two years.

Mourinho

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