Leeds United will welcome European champions Chelsea to Elland Road tomorrow looking to cause an upset in the Capital One Cup quarter-finals. Richard Sutcliffe reports.
FROM the moment the draw for the Capital One Cup quarter-finals paired together the combatants in one of English football’s most enduring rivalries, a number of intriguing subplots quickly became apparent.
The most obvious surrounded Ken Bates, who after 21 years at the helm of Chelsea had moved north in January, 2005, to take charge at Elland Road.
Not only had the 81-year-old left Stamford Bridge after a fall out with the new owners but he and wife Suzannah are also godparents to one of Blues manager Robert Di Matteo’s children.
Of course, since the draw was made on the final day of October, much has changed with Di Matteo having since been sacked and – in a twist that has undoubtedly brought an extra edge to the rivalry between the two clubs – replaced by a manager who is most definitely not on the Christmas card list of Leeds chief Neil Warnock.
Rafael Benitez incurred the wrath of Warnock, then manager of Sheffield United, on the penultimate weekend of the 2006-07 season by selecting a weakened Liverpool team to face Fulham.
The Reds, due in Champions League final action 18 days later, lost as Fulham claimed what turned out to be their only victory in the final 12 games of the campaign.
Come the end of the season, it meant the Cottagers finished a point above the relegated Blades – to leave Warnock writing of his “hatred” for Benitez in his 2007 autobiography, Made in Sheffield.
Fast forward five-and-a-bit years and the two men will once again lock horns. However, when asked yesterday if his views on the Chelsea manager had changed in the intervening years, Warnock was unusually reticent.
“I don’t think I should get into that,” said the 64-year-old Leeds chief. “The last time I heard from Rafa, he was threatening to sue me on an email.
”I think it was his solicitor who was threatening legal action. I’ve got it (the e-mail) in a scrapbook at home.”
Pressed again on his feelings towards Benitez, Warnock added: “You get disappointments in every walk of life. I have made my feelings clear on how my feelings have been over the last few years and nothing will change that.
“But enough water has passed under the bridge. I don’t want to give you any more ammunition than you have already got.”
Benitez’s first return to Elland Road since his Liverpool side triumphed 1-0 in a Carling Cup third round tie in 2009 was certainly something few saw coming when the quarter-final draw was made.
Not only was Chelsea’s European triumph under Di Matteo still fresh in the mind but the London club were also riding high at the top of the Premier League with 22 points from nine games.
Now, however, Benitez has been at the helm for seven games, the most recent coming on Sunday when Chelsea lost 1-0 to Corinthians in the World Club Cup final in Tokyo.
Defeat in Japan will not have helped any attempts to lift the Blues squad – both physically and mentally – after the party arrived back in London after a gruelling flight yesterday.
With John Terry injured and Gary Cahill suspended, Benitez’s problems include having just two fit centre-halves in David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic.
Warnock, who has his own injury concerns over Lee Peltier and Jamie Ashdown, is now hoping to pile on the misery for a Chelsea side who are still reeling from meekly surrendering their European crown.
He said: “We can give anyone a run for their money on our patch and it promises to be a really good Cup tie. There is nothing else happening in the country that night so all eyes will be on us.
“Chelsea could put three teams out that could beat us. And, without a shadow of a doubt, the manager will look to win it because he is an interim manager.
“He will want to win every game and every competition he can. From my point of view, what you want to do is pit your wits against one of the game’s top managers.
“At my age, you never know if it is going to be your last big cup tie really so it really whets the appetite. I don’t think I could have picked a better team to play against.
“It really has got all the ingredients for me, including a stadium with a full house. It promises to be fabulous with no pressure on us.”
One other subplot surrounding tomorrow’s quarter-final tie is that Warnock will be taking on a club who he once turned down the chance to manage.
The offer came in the summer of 1991 when Ken Bates was searching for a successor to Bobby Campbell but Warnock, fresh from leading Notts County into the top flight via back-to-back promotions, instead opted to stay at Meadow Lane.
Warnock, whose United side has been practising penalties in training ahead of tomorrow’s tie, said: “I don’t have any regrets because your life shapes around decisions and I was a northern lad, who in those days thought going beyond Watford was the end of the world.
“I went down twice, once to the ground and once to Ken’s farm in Beaconsfield. I was stuck on the motorway for five hours on both occasions and realised it wasn’t for me. Plus, I wanted to stay loyal to a group of players who had been fantastic for me for a couple of years.
“Mind, I wish I could have had Chelsea now,” adds the Leeds chief before breaking into a huge smile.
“Maybe I should have got it this time, after Roberto left. He (Abramovich) hasn’t had an Englishman in the job, has he?”