"Top of the table or bottom, Manchester United against Chelsea would always be a cracker," says John Hollins, who believes that today's meeting will live up to that tradition. If he has any concerns, it is on behalf of the club for which he played 592 games in exciting times in the Sixties, before three trickier seasons as managerin the Eighties.
Since then he has worked as a sort of Red – or Blue – Adair, fighting footballing fires in places as diverse as Rochdale and Raith Rovers, China and Crawley; following a split with Weymouth which is now in the hands of the legal eagles, he is happy to take a place in the Stamford Bridge stands, where he has recently discerned signs of discontent with his highly paid successors on the pitch and in the dug-out. "Chelsea supporters may have been a bit spoilt with success under Jose Mourinho," he admits, "but sometimes they're not far wrong." An area in which the 62-year-old Hollins sympathises, like many of his generation, is impatience with players who seem less hungry to be back in the team and fighting to keep their place than in days gone by.
"The [fans] are paying £50 for their tickets and they want to know why somebody's not playing. Too tired? Too many games? The more games you play, the more competitions you're in. I wanted to play every game. If I'm dropped, that means I'm not doing something right, and my pride tells me to get back into the team, in any position, and stay there."
Versatility was one of Hollins' strengths, from wing-half to full-back and the centre of defence, a quality that persuaded a club as big as Arsenal to sign him at the age of 33. He was most effective in midfield and therefore looks at that area of the current Chelsea side with special interest. "They're just a bit disjointed. [John] Obi Mikel is a big guy in front of the defence but he's not a Makelele or an Essien. [Lassana] Diarra's just been sold to Real Madrid for about £20 million. Couldn't you do with a Diarra now? He's a young Deco."
What of Deco himself, struggling to fit in with Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack? "They're all senior players, 30 or more, established players who are not going to change their ways. It's a slotting-in job. Deco is very neat, but whereas Lampard gets into the box to score, Deco doesn't. It's a slight misfit. Lampard at least does shoot if he has a sight of goal. Other times it's like watching Arsenal and thinking, 'Just shoot!' – but they're looking for the perfect little chip."
The most worrying trend since Christmas has been conceding goals right at the finish, costing victories against Fulham and Southend, which, as Hollins says, was almost unheard- of under Mourinho. "They do look vulnerable. With Mourinho, atone-nil you felt that was the game finished. At two-nil it certainly was. The other thing he was very good at was making changes, often at half-time if not even earlier."
Essentially, however, Hollins is an optimistic man; that is a prerequisite of taking a job such as manager of Rochdale (he was sacked by fax after 12 months). The return of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho as a defensive partnership persuades him that an improvement in defence will follow, and could spread through the side.
"The giving away of goals is unforgivable. The organisation of who's where is so important. But one good game can set you off and it can all gel together. All of a sudden the shape comes back. And they're still there, second in the table. So it'll be a good game, I'm sure, probably something controversial too."
Hollins will sit and watch it, while keeping an ear out for the telephone, like unemployed managers do; even 62-year-old ones. "It might not sound like me, but I'm good at what I do. Going in, sorting a team out, getting them out of relegation. I've done it five times now. Your first sacking is the hardest. Then the second one, rather than break your heart, doesn't feel so bad."
Manchester United v Chelsea (Sky Sports 1, 4pm)
United have played all their main rivals away, Chelsea have played theirs at home; now the fixture list begins to even out with one of the season's key games. It will leave the gap between them anything from seven points to one. United have two home games in hand.
Wigan Athletic v Tottenham Hotspur (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)
Re-signing Jermain Defoe gives Spurs much better attacking potential, but as a dismal first half against Burnley showed, the midfield balance is still not right. Buoyant Wigan will hope to take advantage by avenging an FA Cup loss to the London side.
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