Ashley Cole will be at the centre of a Metropolitan Police operation tomorrow at Stamford Bridge to prevent him being targeted with homophobic abuse that gay rights groups claim has been planned by Arsenal supporters. In the past two seasons, this London derby has been poisonous enough between the two managers, this time it could be the first Premiership match where supporters may be arrested for trying to smuggle in a pink feather boa or an inflatable mobile phone.
It promises to be one of English football's most bitter encounters but with William Gallas injured and likely to stay away from Stamford Bridge, at least one half of that controversial two-way summer transfer between Chelsea and Arsenal will be spared. But that is not all: throw in a disgruntled Ukrainian and two German internationals on opposing sides who have spent the last four months avoiding one another and the stage is set for a classic.
Arsène Wenger yesterday read out a long list of the absent that did nothing to improve the mood around Arsenal. Gallas, Thierry Henry and Tomas Rosicky all injured, Kolo Touré missing through suspension. Over at Chelsea's training ground in Surrey, Michael Ballack was asked why it was Arsenal played much more attractive football than Chelsea. "They used to say that about us at Bayer Leverkusen," he replied, "but we never won anything."
The pot is simmering nicely, although things could turn ugly depending on the nature of the chants towards Cole from Arsenal's expected 3,100 fans. The matter was drawn to the attention of the Metropolitan police by Peter Tatchell's OutRage! gay rights group which said Chelsea stewards would be checking fans' bags for "homophobic material" while police officers would hand out "anti-homophobic leaflets". Offensive chants will result in arrests and Arsenal have issued a statement telling their fans that "inflatable mobiles or fake bank notes" will not be permitted.
Cole has made it clear that he is not gay although he can expect plenty of stick for his part in the distasteful saga that led to his departure from Arsenal in August. Yesterday, Wenger appealed for all sides not to "make a war" out of the game and that the managers both had "a responsibility before the game to calm it down". "Recently in Paris we had a guy [Paris St-Germain fan] killed at a game and that is not what we want in football," Wenger said. "It is not made for that. I would be happy if Chelsea v Arsenal was a fantastic football game. My responsibility is to make sure that it is. My relationship with him [Cole] is OK. He went to Chelsea under special circumstance that has been talked about a lot.
"But I also don't forget that he has done well for this club and you have to respect that. He went to Chelsea to continue his career in a decent way and go as high as he can, which I am sure he will do. He appreciates what he has done for the club and what the club has done for him. He wanted to leave but nothing will stop me from thinking he had done well for us. I was prepared for him to leave."
Ballack reacted with some relief that he has been named by Jose Mourinho as among the "untouchables" in the team. "Jose is a great trainer so if he says that then it must be true," Ballack said. A German reporter later confirmed that this was intended as a joke, although it was hard to tell at the time.
Perhaps more telling was Ballack's attitude towards his Germany team-mate Jens Lehmann who, it transpired, he has not seen much of since moving to England. Demonstrating he has already picked up a typical Londoner's attitude, Ballack said that he had not seen Lehmann because "he lives in north London whereas I live in the south - and it takes hours to get in". He added: "We're not really close friends, so we don't have much contact."
As for Cole, Ballack said he has been "relaxed" in training but there will be nothing relaxing about the way in which tomorrow's match unfolds. The title is one thing that will not be decided, but the answer to which side has a greater claim on the hearts of English football will be clearer. The bulldozers of Chelsea's star-studded midfield or the young prodigies of Wenger's side.
Ballack was dismissive of Arsenal's claim to play the better football, as demonstrated by his comparison to Leverkusen and their famous season of 2001-02 when, having knocked Liverpool and Manchester United out of the Champions' League, they lost to Real Madrid in the European Cup final. They finished second in the Bundesliga and runners-up in the German Cup.
It could have come from Mourinho's own mantra. "I don't necessarily agree with the thing about attractive football," Ballack said. "And I don't share the opinion that Arsenal are more attractive than Chelsea. It was the same at Leverkusen - you might play more attractively but you might take risks and lose and success is about winning."
It would seem Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos are the two centre-backs set to start for Wenger. If Andrei Shevchenko cannot make inroads against that pair, then it might be time for him to rethink his change of club. Mourinho has laid down a very clear challenge to his £31m man this week by excluding him from the "untouchables".
As for Henry, Ballack said with a shrug that Arsenal could "compensate for him in the short term but not in the long term". It seems unlikely that the injured Arsenal captain will make it down to the dugout for another public demonstration of solidarity - and for once he will have trouble stealing the limelight. That will belong to Chelsea's No 3, however much he might wish it otherwise.
Why the match is so flammable
* ASHLEY COLE v ARSENAL
In January 2005, Ashley Cole met Chelsea representatives to discuss the possibility of moving clubs. This was illegal because Cole was under contract at Arsenal and both he and Chelsea were subsequently fined. Cole signed a one-year extension at Arsenal but nevertheless acrimoniously left the club this summer. Within weeks he published a book containing scathing criticism of Arsenal and especially their vice-chairman, David Dein. He claimed the board had treated him as a 'scapegoat' and 'fed him to the sharks' over the tapping-up affair. Cole maintains that 'principles', and not money, were the reason he left Arsenal but admitted he nearly crashed his car when told he would be paid only £55,000 a week.
* WILLIAM GALLAS v CHELSEA
Cole's transfer was ultimately facilitated by William Gallas moving in the opposite direction. For some time Gallas had been hinting he was unhappy at being played at left-back but Chelsea claimed he was just seeking higher wages. Chelsea then issued a statement claiming Gallas had forced the move by threatening to deliberately score an own goal. Gallas, who is not playing tomorrow, rejected this and accused Chelsea of lacking class and "hiding behind false accusations".
ARSENE WENGER v JOSE MOURINHO
Jose Mourinho's characteristic outspokenness appeared to have gone too far in October 2005 when he said of the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger: 'I think he is one of these people who is a voyeur. He likes to watch other people. There are some guys who, when they are at home, have a big telescope to see what happens in other families. He speaks, speaks, speaks about Chelsea.' Wenger threatened to sue Mourinho but ultimately settled for a grudging apology from the Chelsea manager.
By Bertie Rapkin
Great divides: Other football feuds that have reached boiling point
* GARY NEVILLE v LIVERPOOL FANS
After Neville revealed in a fanzine "I can't stand Liverpool and everything to do with them," United fans conjured the song "Gary Neville is a Red, he hates scousers". Jeers, threatening letters and an attempt to overturn his car while he was stuck in traffic have been the response of some Liverpool supporters. Last season Neville was fined £5,000 by the FA for running more than half the length of the Old Trafford pitch to celebrate a late Manchester United winner in front of the Liverpool fans.
* ROY KEANE v ALF INGE HAALAND
In November 1997 Roy Keane suffered cruciate knee ligament damage in attempting to trip Leeds' Alf Inge Haaland. Keane was out for a year. Haaland, who had stood over him accusing him of feigning injury, was later reported saying he found it "funny" that Keane injured himself. Four years later Keane caught up with Haaland, now at Manchester City, deliberately stamping on his knee. "I'd waited long enough. I f*****g hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c**t," Keane declared in his autobiography. Haaland retired due to injury in 2002. Although injury to his other knee was the cause, City sought to sue United - unsuccessfully - arguing that the injury was related.
FRANK LAMPARD v WEST HAM FANS
Even when he played for West Ham, Frank Lampard's relationship with their fans was ambivalent. Many had suggested his selection was nepotism as his namesake father was coach and the manager, Harry Redknapp, was his uncle. His 2001 move to Chelsea prompted a bitter reaction by Hammers fans fuelled by Lampard responding in kind. In his recent autobiography he described hearing cheers from Hammers fans when he broke his leg as an 18-year-old which "made me feel sick to the stomach". He added: "I wanted West Ham to lose. Now I don't even look for their results".
SOL CAMPBELL V TOTTENHAM FANS
The England central defender and club captain angered Spurs supporters in the summer of 2001 when he ran down his contract so that he could leave on a free transfer. Annoyance turned to fury when he announced his destination: Arsenal, Spurs' arch rivals. The fans have never let him forget it.
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