Sunday, November 8, 2009
Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United
United were excellent at Stamford Bridge, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s near-perfect game-plan only went unrewarded after the Reds conceded a goal from a highly dubious second-half free-kick which led to Chelsea skipper John Terry’s winner.
The Reds had bossed possession for large periods of the game and had looked the stronger, more confident side – with Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney both outstanding. United at least deserved a draw, but the residing feeling is one of injustice, made worse that the Reds slip to third and Chelsea now boast a five-point lead at the top of the league.
Chelsea are formidable at Stamford Bridge, boasting a 100 per cent home record under Carlo Ancelotti this season and having conceded only once. United also haven’t won in West London since April 2002, a record Sir Alex was keen to arrest. Not only that, Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday had seen them leapfrog United into second place on goal difference, while leaders Chelsea’s two-point cushion at the top would be far more imposing were it extended to five.
However, the opportunity was also there for United to return to the league’s summit, and though most outsiders predicted the Reds would have no joy at Stamford Bridge, Sir Alex has his men fired up to prove any doubters wrong.
He would have to achieve it without either of his first-choice central defenders, however, as a troublesome calf problems meant Rio Ferdinand was absent and Nemanja Vidic had to settle for a place on the bench. That meant a centre-half pairing of Wes Brown and Jonny Evans up against the pace and power of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.
It was a positive and pacy start from both teams and the Reds looked full of confidence and belief. Chelsea got in behind United’s defence on the right in the first five minutes, with Ivanovic eventually forcing a save from Edwin van der Sar, but other than that the Reds dominated possession and dictated play early on.
The match became far more open than is usual for United-Chelsea games of recent times – and all the more entertaining for it. One example of the game’s openness, and perhaps United’s best chance of the half, came after 29 minutes when Fletcher’s arced pass scythed open the home side’s defence and Giggs. The Welshman struck his shot first-time on the volley, looping the ball just a little too high over Petr Cech, and subsequently the crossbar.
Chelsea finished the first half with a flurry of attacks as United’s passing became a little sloppy. But all in all it was a positive first 45 minutes for the Reds, with Sir Alex’s tactics of pressing Chelsea’s midfield working very well overall.
United began the second half equally as positively as the first, with Rooney stepping it up a gear. Fletcher flashed a shot over after good work from the United front man, then a well-worked move across the area involving Rooney ended with Giggs crossing just too high for Anderson at the far post. Fletcher was denied with another attempt on the hour mark, as Ricardo Carvalho brilliantly raced out to block the Scotsman’s 20-yard effort.
With Fletcher and Carrick pulling the strings in midfield, and Rooney providing the spark up front, this was fast turning into one of United’s finest displays of the season so far.
The Reds’ best effort came in the 67th minute. A quick free-kick from Anderson allowed Rooney to press menacingly on into the final third. He played a clever one-two with Antonio Valencia and then drilled his shot inches wide. A minute later, the outstanding Rooney curled a shot from 25 yards which had Cech scrambling desperately across goal to tip the ball wide for a corner.
But all United’s good work was undone by a shoddy refereeing decision after 76 minutes when Fletcher clearly won the ball in a challenge on Ashley Cole. But Martin Atkinson thought differently. United were angered by the decision, and that soon turned to indignation when John Terry glanced his header home from Frank Lampard’s free-kick delivery on the left. Even then, the goal came under dubious circumstances as Drogba – in an offside position – flicked his foot at the ball and should technically have been adjudged to have interfered with play. To rub salt in the wounds, Rooney was booked for protesting the initial decision.
In the 84th minute Valencia flashed a shot just wide from a good position inside the area, and that was followed by a double substitution for the Reds – Giggs and Anderson being replaced by Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen as Sir Alex rolled the dice.
It made for a frantic finish and with five minutes of injury time – largely due to, you guessed it, Didier Drogba spending time injured on the floor – the Reds gave it a big push. But there wasn’t enough in the tank to break the home side’s stubborn resistance, and if you were to be critical of this performance, then United's inability to score has to be at the crux of it. It’s far from a title decider, but even at this stage it is advantage Chelsea.