Even before Chelsea's transformation this summer with the injection of funds from new owner Roman Abramovich, the two clubs had played out some memorable matches in recent years, including a 3-3 Old Trafford draw in 2000, a 5-0 victory for Chelsea in west London the year before, and a thrilling 1997/98 FA Cup tie that visitors United won 5-3.
But following Chelsea's world-record €155m spending spree that added Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastián Verón, Claude Makelele, Hernán Crespo, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Geremi, Wayne Bridge and Glen Johnson to their squad, the excitement around their 137th meeting with the reigning champions has grown exponentially. The fact that both sides reached the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday with a game to spare is testament to their strength, although it is Arsenal FC, who beat Internazionale FC 5-1, who lead the way in the Premiership, although the top three teams are separated by just two points.
Verón will miss the visit of the club he left last summer with a neck injury, but Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri can welcome back Marcel Desailly after an eight-week break with a hip problem. However, the Italian may opt to continue with in-form defensive duo John Terry and William Gallas. "
We have a lot of respect for the champions," Ranieri said. "We play with the same philosophy, with the same mentality."
United, meanwhile, have had injury worries this week over Gary Neville, Ruud van Nistelrooij, Roy Keane, Mikaël Silvestre and Rio Ferdinand, but manager Sir Alex Ferguson has tipped them all to be fit. Ryan Giggs, who equalised 24 minutes from the end of United's 2-2 draw at Chelsea last season, said: "It is always a big game anyway when we play them, but they have had so many big signings, and got off to such a good start, it is going to be an even bigger game this time."
Paul Scholes has recovered from a hernia operation and could be deployed from the bench, with Diego Forlán, who scored late winners in United's Premiership and League Cup home victories against Chelsea last term, expected to continue in the starting lineup. Phil Neville, rested for Wednesday's 1-0 success at Panathinaikos FC, is tipped to partner captain Keane in central midfield.
Guest of honour at Stamford Bridge will be Clive Woodward, who led England's rugby union team to World Cup glory last week, but his footballing counterpart, Sven-Göran Eriksson, can also watch with interest. Eight of the players he fielded against Denmark earlier this month play for these two clubs - a figure that could have been eleven had United trio Ferdinand, Scholes and Wes Brown been available.
Chelsea midfield player Cole, who scored against Denmark but whose last encounter with the champions was a 6-0 FA Cup defeat with former club West Ham United FC, said: "
We do not fear anybody. We look at it as a game against the champions and a chance to try to put some more points on the board. But people will look at it to see how far Chelsea have come. We will see how far we have come."
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