United happy to take on role of party poopers

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The Independent Online

He arrives with the intention of spoiling a lavish party but, should he fail in his primary objective at Stamford Bridge this afternoon, then Sir Alex Ferguson intends to leave without acting the spoilt child.

Though it surely cut to the core of the Manchester United manager to form a guard of honour for the new-crowned champions of England at Old Trafford last season, Ferguson would have no compunction in paying a similar tribute to Chelsea today should they preserve a two-year unbeaten home record in the Premiership under Jose Mourinho and thereby lay claim to a second successive title.

"It's the done thing," he insisted yesterday. "What we did in clapping Chelsea on to the pitch was deserving of a team that's won the title. Over the years, when we've won the title, our opponents have applauded us on to the field. We didn't hesitate about doing that because it's normal practice."

If normal practice prevails at the Bridge this lunchtime United must steel themselves again as reluctant guests at a Chelsea coronation. Mourinho requires only one point to seal the crown and to condemn Ferguson to a third season without it - a drought the Chelsea manager recently declared would lead him to resign his post in shame - and he could not have hand-picked a better opponent to demonstrate the shift in power he has overseen.

What should be a perfect stage, however, is not without its flaws. For Chelsea supporters, starved of championship success for half a century until their saviour arrived from Porto almost two years ago, today's match offers merely an added bonus to the main event, the chance to put United and Ferguson in their place as they demonstrate their evident superiority with the championship. Criticism of their style and grace, or lack of it, will be ignored once the champagne flows but it is a mark of how far Chelsea have progressed that they could stroll to a second title this afternoon and look back on their season with some regret.

Three more victories would give Mourinho a record haul for the Premiership of 97 points, two more than last season, an incredible 17 wins in 18 matches at Stamford Bridge has improved on the previous campaign's total of 14.

Yet for Roman Abramo- vich, even Mourinho himself, this season's self-improvement was to be measured in trophies as well as statistics following a summer outlay of £50m on Shaun Wright-Phillips, Michael Essien and Asier del Horno. Like any self-respecting champion, they expected far more.

The Chelsea manager insists that the Champions' League owes much to fortune and does not guarantee victory for the strongest or finest team, and as a former winner he ought to know, although his conquerors Barcelona remain on course to contradict that argument this season. Success in Europe preoccupied the Premiership champions from the moment of their exit at Anfield last season and their failure to make significant in-roads in this campaign will gnarl at the club's hierarchy long after the ribbons have been attached to the championship trophy, especially now that Arsenal have secured their place in Paris and neutrals begin to salivate at the prospect of a beautiful final.

There will also be unease at the tactical tinkering from Mourinho that handed the advantage to Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final and cost the club the chance to compensate for their misfortune in drawing Frank Rijkaard's team in the European Cup with the Double. Not that such misgivings will be aired in public, of course.

"Being knocked out of the Champions' League and losing in cups was disappointing at the time but we had one thing in our minds and that was the Premiership," the club captain John Terry insisted yesterday. " We've always bounced back and over the course of the season we've been the best side in the Premiership. The standards we set ourselves were awesome last year and coming into this season and the Christmas period we were playing really well. We had a couple of slips and everyone jumped on the bandwagon to say we weren't playing as well as last season. But we're in a great position to win the Premiership for the second year running and that's a great achievement."

Rumours about Chelsea's transfer agenda for this summer suggest that not everyone at the club is of the same opinion. The England defender admitted he expects a much closer challenge from Manchester United next season and Ferguson concurs. If a replacement for Roy Keane finally arrives this summer the Scot believes he will have "the strongest squad I've ever had here" and contends that his side still represents the greatest attraction in the Premiership. "People would rather watch United," he insisted. "It's been the same for 40 years." But it is not Chelsea who will be forming the guard of honour this season.

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