The banner in the Matthew Harding Stand at Stamford Bridge reads: "John Terry. Captain, Leader, Legend." And thanks to a disciplinary commission's verdict, the object of that accolade will be able to lead from the front and not from the seats in this afternoon's first meeting of England's two leading clubs since his miscued penalty in the shoot-out at the Champions' League final in Moscow last May.
Terry's presence is a controversial but correct outcome to the incident last Saturday in which he hauled back Manchester City's Jo as the Brazilian striker broke past him. Terry was not the last defender and was guilty of "unsporting behaviour", a yellow-card offence, not "serious foul play", for which the punishment is red.
The Football Association's Respect campaign does not yet chastise cynicism by an England captain, however regrettable, and the only unsatisfactory aspect of the case – leaving aside whether the referee, Mark Halsey, deserved such a humiliating demotion for his error – is that the regulations inexplicably do not allow for a retrospective yellow card instead.So Terry escapes without a blemish on his record.
Even the player himself admitted: "Football people watching realised it was a yellowcard." Speaking after Chelsea's embarrassingly easy 4-0 victoryover Bordeaux in midweek, however, he was not averse to mentioning the advantages his team will enjoy this afternoon, given that his opposite number as United's defensive strongman, Nemanja Vidic, is suspended for a deserved sending-off against Liverpool. "He's missing from the game and he'll be a big miss for them," Terry said. "But I'm available and hopefully that's a boost for us."
Every small advantage counts in these decisive contests between the serious Premier League contenders, and it is never too early to win one. Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that United never really recovered from losing the opening game of the season at Stamford Bridge four years ago, when Chelsea won the first of the four titles the clubs have shared since then; and had Chelsea won at Old Trafford on Avram Grant's debut as managerthis time last year, they would have regained the championship instead of losing it by two points.
Sitting four points better off already than United (who have a game against Fulham in hand) offers Terry and friends a terrificopportunity to ram home their advantage. "It will be a massive game for Man United," he said. "Things haven't gone so well for them and that's going to be a bigger incentive for them to beat us here and start their form.
"Hopefully we can stop them doing that. It would still be very early. There's no doubt in my mind that they will go on a run and put themselves back in the frame. It's down to us if we do get that lead, if we do manage to win on Sunday, that we retain it. Then we'll make it difficult not just for Man Utd but the other teams in and around us.
"Last year when Man Utd were playing well we kept winning and we weren't getting any closer to them because they kept winning. If you're the team in front, playing well and keeping winning, that's really good."
Luiz Felipe Scolari, unlike his predecessor, clearly has the full support of the dressing room, even when berating players for sloppiness, as he did after the Bordeaux game. He has not yet put a foot wrong, and one of the notable differences from Jose Mourinho's regime has been his settled side. No regular rotation here: in five games Chelsea have made only four changes, at least half of them necessitated by injury, which has helped the only two newcomers, Deco and the impressive right-back Jose Bosingwa, to fit in seamlessly.
Michael Essien will be out for some time, but with Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba fit, the time is only now approaching for some tough managerial decisions. "We look very exciting," Terry said. "We've got goals in us a lot more this year. Nicolas Anelka looks like a new signing, he's been brilliant. Deco's been awesome since he came in, Bosingwa gives us something different going forward and defensively he's great as well. I think the manager made some clever signings and I think he's dealt with players that have been here for a couple of years and lifted their confidence."
In contrast, United, after claiming a solitary win in five games, look like a team in search of a system. The one employed at Anfield, with Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez in the front line, may work against weaker opposition but did not do so at Anfield, and would be a bold step this afternoon. An equally positive one, offering better balance, would be to leave out one of the trio and start with Cristiano Ron-aldo, who enlivened the team and the crowd when brought on as a substitute against Villarreal in midweek for his first club appearance since Moscow.
He would need to pay attention to defensive duties as well, for Ferguson's scouts will have told him that United cannot allow Bosingwa and Ashley Cole the freedom of the flanks as Bordeaux did. But the former Chelsea maestro Marcel Des- ailly, an interested spectator at Old Trafford on Wednesday, is among those who feel today's game has come just too early for Portugal's prodigal son.
"From what I saw against Villarreal, I don't think Ronaldolooked like a player who could play from the start," Desailly said. "It's not good for him to take any risks after a long injury. He was anxious to see the reaction of the crowd and was able to feel the pitch for 30 minutes, to breathe again. But he needs to do that before he can deliver great games. United are not at their best at the moment but they must look at the long term with Ronaldo and not just this game."
Early days then, but Chelsea are unquestionably in better shape than their rivals so far. "Moscow? That's all in the past and we move on," said Terry.
How they have finished in the Premier League:
1. Manchester United 87pts
2. Chelsea 85pts
1. Manchester United 89
2. Chelsea 83
1. Chelsea 91
2. Manchester United 83
1. Chelsea 95
3. Manchester United 77
See Chelsea take on Manchester United this afternoon on Sky Sports 1, kick-off 2pm
Today's match-by-match guide, by Steve Tongue
West Bromwich Albion (4pts) v Aston Villa (7pts)
With a 3-2 win under their belt against West Ham, Albion can breathe out and expect a similarly open game with their neighbours. It may be just as high-scoring, in contrast to recent derbies, for Villa have the pace to troublethe home defence.
Chelsea (10) v Manchester Utd (4)
Having failed their first Big Four test at Anfield last weekend, United would not have wanted another so soon, especially away to a buoyant Chelsea and with minimal preparation after a Wednesday-night European match. A draw would be a good result for them.
Manchester City (6) v Portsmouth (6)
Coming down to earth so quickly against Chelsea was no bad thing for Middle Eastlands. One Brazilian striker, or even two, do not make a summer or a season, and beating Portsmouth should not get anyone overexcited.
Tottenham (1) v Wigan (4)
Whichever language Juande Ramos speaks in, the message is clear: he admits Spurs are worse in some positions than last season. The expensive defence is no better and the new Wigan combination of Zaki and Emile Heskey should test it thoroughly.
Hull (7) v Everton (6)
A tigerish start by the relegation favourites, but losing 5-0 at home to Wigan was more relevant than taking advantage of the chaos at Newcastle. Everton, having overcome Stoke's power play, can look forward to another away win.