Debating finer points of United-Chelsea
Stop me if you've heard this one before. The league's two best teams of the past five years are going toe to toe and elbow to neck this weekend in a potentially title-deciding match overflowing with history, emotion, meaty challenges, mind games and Fernando Torres.
Sunday's showdown between Manchester United and Chelsea contains many of the same elements of the massively hyped Barcelona-Real Madrid Clasico, but thankfully we won't have to endure the ridiculous playacting and coaching machismo-fest that turned their recent spate of matches into an El Fiasco. After all, everyone knows that in England players don't dive and roll around on the ground clutching their faces. Right, Nani?
"I find it shameful," said my friend Luke Dempsey, the most rabid United fan I know. "But it's not like Chelsea doesn't engage in their share of theatrics. Anyone remember how they tried to decapitate the referee after losing the Champions League semifinal to Barcelona a couple of years ago?"
"That's a ludicrous comparison," countered my friend Paul Kanarek, the most unhinged Chelsea fan in my address book. "There's a big difference between losing your cool after being cheated out of a place in the Champions League final due to a referee's incompetence and flopping to the ground at the first sign of a slight breeze."
It is safe to say that Luke and Paul will never enjoy a Prince William-and-Becks level of soccer bromance. For starters, we're talking about grown men whose psychic well-being hinges on whether David Luiz can cope with the darting runs of Javier Hernandez better than John Terry did in the two CL games. Both friends have suffered for their team from the cradle, with Luke born and bred in Manchester and Paul growing up in London under the spell of Chelsea's Peter legends, Osgood and Bonetti. Even though he's lived in America for 20 years, Luke still has season tickets to Old Trafford, while Paul recently paid a guy $450 to drive him from Manchester back to his hotel in London after last month's second leg of the Chelsea-United Champions League fandango.
These are sick, sick soccer fans.
Oh, and you haven't heard the best part. Luke actually named his children -- twin girls! -- after his two favorite all-time United players: Amelia Margaret Cantona Dempsey and Lily Adele Solskjaer Dempsey are only 8 and already permanently in the grip of their father's obsession.
So in search of a clear-eyed perspective on Sunday's game, I sought out Luke and Paul to each handicap his respective team's chances. The tension at my local pub, Kinsale Tavern, was at DEFCON Housewives of New Jersey level, but they agreed to let me referee their Bile Bowl if I bought the beer. After wishing their teams equally bad luck -- in case I haven't mentioned it in a few sentences, Arsenal is reduced to playing for the honor of third place -- the verbal throwdown began. Many of their comments have been redacted as they are neither suitable for a family website nor anatomically possible to perform.
The opening barbs consisted mostly of Luke yelling "Look at the bleedin' scoreboard," while recounting the number of European and EPL trophies gathering dust in Manchester and gently reminding Paul why Chelsea wouldn't be appearing at Wembley this year. After Paul mentioned Luke's questionable biological heritage, he countered that the Blues weren't the same lifeless bunch that lost to United home and away in their Champions League battle.
"We've won four [league matches] on the trot since that hiccup," Paul pointed out. "We've got the stingiest defense in the league, and our key players are all finally fit. Without the pathetic shadow known as 'No Can Do' Torres clogging up the field, we'll be able to get full games out of a malaria-free Didier Drogba; the hyper-caffeinated Luiz, John Terry's faster, more skillful partner in central defense; and a rejuvenated Frank Lampard, who will put that Scottish thug Darren Fletcher in his back pocket and make him beg for haggis scraps."
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At that point, Luke let loose with a tirade worthy of Sir Alex himself, his Stella arcing across the bar like a delicate Berba chip. "Are you aware that we haven't lost at Old Trafford in 13 months?" he huffed. "And are we really supposed to be afraid of Lampard and Luiz? The only thing to fear about Luiz is that he looks like Sideshow Bob and somehow manages to get away with fouling our players without getting carded, as he did so artfully in your league 'win' against us at Stamford Bridge. To say that the Champions League matches would have turned out differently had Luiz not been cup-tied is the kind of mewling excuse I'd expect from a Liverpool fan."
Well, at least that's the edited version that can appear on this site.
Before Paul's bum had time to squeak, Luke finished painting his confident scenario.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
"Please don't confuse Chelsea with the mighty Schalke juggernaut you rolled over in the Champions League," Paul hissed. "What are they tenth in the Bundesliga? How many of their players do you think could start for Chelsea? Let's just say that any time Darron Gibson can look like the second coming of Ryan Giggs circa 1999, it speaks volumes about the level of competition. I don't really see him making much of an impact against quality opposition."
"That's because he'll be nowhere near the field, you clueless wanker," Luke riposted. "First of all, he was only playing against Schalke because we fielded our B team. But don't worry, you'll see plenty of killer balls from Giggs and Paul Scholes, if Fergie decides to opt to start the little ginger genius."
"Oh, I'd love it if he picked Scholes," said Paul. "He's such a cool customer that the over/under on how long he stays on the pitch is 30 minutes."
I asked the bartender, Shirley (an insufferable Chelsea fan, by the way), to clean up the spillage and to refill our combatants' glasses to reduce the incipient danger of spontaneous combustion.
"I'm amazed you haven't mentioned how ordinary we look compared to you lot last season when you won the double," Luke smirked. "You know, it's true, we don't have the swash and buckle of a Ronaldo, a Tevez, a Cantona or a Beckham, but Rooney, Antonio Valencia, Chicharito, Giggs and Nani still play great football even if they don't set the soul ablaze. We go 2-0 down and we never think we're beaten -- and that, to me, is the mark of a champion."
"I've constantly praised United's fighting spirit," Paul responded in an apparent accident of generosity, "but they can go 50 minutes every weekend being utterly unwatchable. Given the hunger of Chelsea over the past three months, you can detect a level of gasping emanating from Old Trafford the likes of which hasn't been heard since outside Darth Vader's house."
"The only gasping you're going to hear on Sunday, mate, is when Torres comes on in the 70th minute and Vidic gives him a warm Old Trafford welcome," Luke scoffed, before scaring the other customers at the bar with a full-throated chant of:
He comes from Serbia,
He'll #$%#@! murder ya!"
Paul, never one to back down when it comes to a childish sing-off, burst into this charming ditty:
"Who the @#%@% are Man United,
Who the #$%#@$ are Man United,
When the Blues go marching on, on, on "
And on that sweet note, I asked for the check -- $60 for the beer and another $10 for a broken glass that had somehow fallen off the bar during the festivities. The psychic damage was on the house. But there was still one piece of unfinished business: Who was going to win the game? I asked each of our now-sodden rivals for a prediction.
"2-1 to the Blues," said Paul, magnanimously extending his hand toward Luke.
"2-1 to the champions, with Rooney scoring the winner," said Luke, doing a passable impression of Sir Alex failing to shake Arsene Wenger's hand after one of their lovefests.
As for me, I don't want to see either of my friends disappointed Sunday. I'd like both teams to lose.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."