There will be the usual selection of seasonal fancy dress on display at Stamford Bridge this lunchtime but genuine Christmas spirit is expected to be in short supply when Chelsea and Reading stage the sequel to their inflammatory October meeting.
Both clubs and the Metropolitan Police have taken special precautions to ensure the safety of the visiting team, in particular Steve Hunt and Ibrahima Sonko, who have each received death threats.
Hunt was accused of behaving recklessly by Jose Mourinho when he challenged Petr Cech in the opening minute at the Madejski Stadium. Cech suffered a fractured skull, and needed emergency neurological surgery after Hunt's knee made contact with him. He has yet to resume contact training. Cech's replacement, Carlo Cudicini, was then knocked unconscious by Sonko in the closing minutes as Chelsea held on for a 1-0 win. The Senegalese was exonerated by Mourinho but has still been threatened.
While Hunt, publicly at least, has reacted with impressive sangfroid in the build-up to today's match, Sonko admitted he has been scared. "At first it made me laugh, then when the second [death threat] came it started to get serious. I got scared. You don't know where the letters have come from so you don't know how to protect yourself."
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said: "The situation has been discussed and an appropriate policing policy is in place." The police would not go into details but it is anticipated that Reading's coach will be given added protection, with the team asked to arrive at the ground earlier than usual. Security around the tunnel and dug-out areas will also be enhanced with random searches and spot checks for some fans.
Although Cudicini has made a full recovery, and Cech is on the mend, the controversy is undimmed because of Mourinho's refusal to retract his angry post-match reaction, and Chelsea's apparent snubbing of peace entreaties by Reading players.
Mourinho demanded the Football Association "punish" Hunt, but the FA decided he had no case to answer. The referee, Mike Riley, saw the incident but did not book Hunt, who has always professed his innocence but appears to have accepted Chelsea do not believe him. The 26-year-old Irishman has attempted to contact Cech and Chelsea without receiving a response, although some at Chelsea believe he has not tried hard enough. "I don't think Hunt has gone to see Pete," Frank Lampard said. "That disappoints me."
Hunt expects a "hostile atmosphere", saying: "Thinking about it won't ruin my Christmas. People are not stupid. They know it was an accident and the majority of people, probably of Chelsea fans, know I didn't mean to do it."
The Reading captain, Graeme Murty, envisaging a scenario which neither the police nor Chelsea would welcome, said: "Imagine if [Hunt] does get lots of stick and then scores the winner. He will probably overload and pass out. He's not the calmest. We might have to give him a few Valium."
Cech will not be at Stamford Bridge, as he has been given leave for a four-day visit to his parents' home in the Czech Republic. On his return he will continue to work towards his comeback, with an appearance before Chelsea's Champions' League tie at Porto on 21 February the target. His recovery rate has impressed medical staff at Chelsea's base at Cobham, Surrey.Reuse content