Chelsea leapfrogged United to go top of the Barclay’s Premier League with a 2-1 win at Old Trafford. Joe Cole gave Chelsea a halftime lead, which was doubled by Drogba’s controversial goal before Macheda pulled one back for the home side. With five games to go, this is a huge blow to United’s title hopes.
If anyone expected Carlo Ancelotti to take the expected route and try to take maximum advantage of Rooney’s absence by fielding his best side, they certainly wouldn’t have expected the Italian’s decision to bench topscorer Didier Drogba. If news of that decision spurred United, they certainly didn’t show it in the first half.
Chelsea started off the proceedings with steely intent, showing little respect to a boisterous Old Trafford environment. In a sign of things to come, the ball set up quite nicely for Deco in the very first minute, but he shot wide.
Chelsea’s bright start to the game continued, with them winning their first corner within three minutes. The only sparks of attack that the Red Devils could muster were channeled through Berbatov drifting onto the left and Neville on the right.
Malouda, once again, proved quite adept at dictating midfield and offensive play with Lampard happy to operate from a deeper position than usual. The Frenchman was a constant thorn in the Red Devils’ side, often easily dispossessing United players during play.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to employ a 4-5-1 formation seemed to be working against their favor – a congested midfield meant there was precious little room for maneuvering. United were being totally overrun in the midfield during the first-half despite boasting the likes of Giggs and Scholes.
A nervy clearance from Vidic gave Joe Cole a half-chance to score off; and although that chance went begging, it seemed to spark a mini-revival from a tired United outfit.
Patrice Evra rampaged down the left, unchecked for the most part and the London club breathed a collective sigh of relief when the attack petered out. At the other end, the ever dependable Giggs was called into action as he did well to steal the ball from a threatening Joe Cole.
Soon enough, however, Chelsea’s persistence would pay off as a marauding Malouda side-stepped Neville, Ferdinand and a host of other United players to thread a delicate pass through for Joe Cole to tap in, past a hapless van der Sar, with the cheekiest of finishes.
As United tried to attack, Chelsea defended resolutely. In one instance, Zhirkov’s legs clashed with those of Ji Sung Park just inside the box. Chelsea survived the ensuing penalty shout with Mike Dean showing a surprising reluctance to engage in his usual behavior of pointing to the spot.
The decision clearly rubbed the United squad the wrong way with an irritated Scholes felling Deco in the midfield, and earning a word of caution from a Mike Dean clearly in no mood for nonsense. Soon enough, Chelsea would be at the receiving end of Dean’s stinginess in handing out penalties as Gary Neville brought Anelka down in the United penalty box, making no contact with the ball in the process.
As the first half wound down, United started to exert greater pressure on the Chelsea backline. Chelsea survived yet another penalty shout as Lampard snatched the ball from under Berbatov’s feet making only minimal contact with the striker, after the ball had been won.
An uneventful first-half for United ended with yellow cards for Scholes and Neville, but not one shot from them that threatened Cech’s post.
United started the second half with no changes to its line-up. The best chance of the game would soon go to Chelsea as Ferreira broke on the right and scuffed a short just inches wide of the post, under intense pressure from Patrice Evra.
As Chelsea’s possession and stranglehold over the game disappeared, United found it within their broken spirits and tired legs. A hitherto invisible Darren Fletcher weaved his way through the entire Blues’ midfield before finally being stopped. It was the first instance in the game that Deco and Mikel were caught out of position and Chelsea’s ‘insurance policy’ of employing them ahead of its injury ravaged defense, showed signs of going bust.
United continued to crank up the pressure, culminating in a spurt of missed opportunities and more than enough anxiety for Chelsea around the hour mark. The added pressure showed as Cech soon enough developed a niggle but soldiered on.
After the hour mark, United had effectively turned the tie on its head. Chelsea were clearly under threat, with several bouts of desperate defending and poor finishing from United being the only things keeping The Blues from conceding.
Mid-way through the second half, both managers rung in their changes. Ancelotti brought in Drogba and Kalou for Anelka and Cole, respectively. Ferguson on the other hand chose to bring on the talented Macheda and Nani as a last throw of the dice, hoping to add potency to United’s attack.
As United developed greater venom up front, Chelsea broke off on the counter with Kalou setting up Drogba for a superb finish. Replays would prove Drogba was clearly offside, and the linesman got it horribly wrong.
If it took a contentious goal for Drogba to seemingly put the game beyond United’s reach, it would take another to bring United right back into the game. A threatening Macheda made full use of Chelsea’s confusion at the back to score United’s first goal of the game, off a Nani pass.
John Terry’s gesticulations at the fact that the ball bounced off Macheda’s torso onto his forearm, before he put the ball into the net did not seem to get a lot of sympathy from Dean.
United’s late renaissance would prove to be insufficient as Chelsea brought on Ballack for Deco, to bolster the physical aspect of their midfield. Zhirkov and Ballack contributed to Chelsea’s cause towards the end, by running down the clock and frustrating United in their attempts to equalize.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Florent Malouda (Chelsea FC)
Beating off stiff competition from teammates Joe Cole, Zhirkov and Deco, Florent Malouda is our player of the game – for simply doing nothing wrong in today’s outing. The Frenchman was fantastic down the left flank and even stepped up to perform the role of attacking midfielder as Lampard stuck on to a traditional central midfielder role. Neville and Rio Ferdinard could only watch as Chelsea’s most improved player this season set up Joe Cole for the opening goal.
TheHardTackle’s REFEREE REPORT CARD
Name : Mike Dean
Grade : C (Average)
Mike Dean was expected, by many, to give a few penalty decisions or at the very least send someone off. To his credit, he did neither, showing amazing restraint and preferring to let the players hog the spotlight for once. Three penalty shouts went unrewarded, though except for one of them, Dean seems to have made defensible decisions by the replays. The linesmen did not cover themselves in glory, with Drogba’s winning goal scored when he was clearly offside and Macheda’s forearm playing a role in United’s first and only goal.
MANCHESTER UNITED 1-2 CHELSEA FC
Venue: Old Trafford
Chelsea FC Line-up: Cech, Zhirkov, Terry, Alex, Ferreira, Lampard, Mikel, Joe Cole (Kalou 74′), Malouda, Anelka (Drogba 70′), Deco (Ballack 82′)
Manager: Carlos Ancelotti
Cautions: Deco, Joe Cole
Scorers: Joe Cole(19’), Drogba(78′)
Man Utd Line-up: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Fletcher (Gibson 86′), Park (Macheda 72′), Scholes (Nani 72′), Giggs, Berbatov
Manager: Alex Ferguson
Cautions: Neville, Fletcher, Scholes