Chelsea were four points clear on top of the table coming into this game with United hot on their heels, chasing to reclaim top spot. Both teams had had exhausting European adventures prior to the occasion. Chelsea’s defensive vulnerabilities were thoroughly exposed by Shakhtar Donetsk at the Donbass Stadium and barring a Petr Cech master class, the Blues could have faced a much heavier defeat. Meanwhile at Old Trafford, United let their opponents Sporting Braga take a two goal lead before producing one of their now staple comeback stories to win 3 – 2. A pattern had been established for both teams. Going forward, they were exciting, imaginative and lethal but the problems lay at the back where both teams were uncharacteristically porous. Therefore, even before the ball was kicked, this game had goals written all over it with many across the world anticipating a classic.
United hadn’t won at Stamford Bridge in a decade and Sir Alex Ferguson was desperate to end that rare ignominious record that stood against his team. Roberto Di Matteo had the task of maintaining his team’s slender 4 point lead at this stage of the season and also a win against United meant that Chelsea would go 7 points clear of their title rivals. Clearly, there was too much riding on this game for both teams.
The FA decided to appoint Mark Clattenburg as the referee for this game. It would be a year since Clattenburg has refereed a United game, the last time he officiated a game United participated in was during their 1 – 6 defeat against crosstown, and title rivals Manchester City.
Team Line Ups
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, David Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres.
Manchester United (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra ; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia, Young; Rooney, Van Persie.
The First Half
Chelsea’s line up was fairly predictable for the game. The European Champions lost Frank Lampard through a calf injury sustained against Shakhtar in midweek and he was deemed to be out for two weeks at the very least. It could be said that the rest of the team pretty much picks itself. There are those who would smile at the inclusion of a certain Daniel Sturridge instead of the infuriatingly ponderous Fernando Torres, however, their wishes weren’t to be satiated this day.
Manchester United meanwhile, reverted to their tried and trusted 4 – 4 – 2 formation(on paper) with Valencia and Young on either flank. There was no place in the team for Danny Welbeck or veteran Paul Scholes. Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand who were rested in midweek against Braga, made their way back into the team for this game. Rio Ferdinand admirably let bygones be bygones and decided to shake pantomime villain Ashley Cole’s hand during the pre-match handshake routine. He also endorsed the ‘Kick it out’ campaign once again by deciding to wear their shirt. Of course, both these gestures could be seen as empty platitudes but it is important that the issue was ended and for doing so, one can’t fault the Manchester United defender.
Chelsea started the first half looking like anything but the home team, one could have put out a best eleven comprising of stewards along the Stamford Bridge touchline instead. At least their luminous jackets would have provided evidence that there was indeed a team out on the pitch. Manchester United scored their first goal of the game in just the third minute. Chelsea lost the ball high up the pitch after Ashley Cole tried passing it to Mata who was under pressure from a United player. The ball fell to Rooney and from there on, it took just three passes, a shot off Van Persie’s right foot and one unfortunate ricochet off David Luiz for the ball to find itself behind Chelsea’s goal line. Ivanovic spotted Van Persie’s run as Manchester United advanced on the counter attack, but failed to reach it before the inch perfect cross came in from Rooney. Questions also have to be asked of Ashley Cole who is usually much better at tracking back and positioning.
United preferred to make it difficult for Chelsea to settle down into their rhythm after their opening goal with Rooney dropping down into midfield making it look like a 4 – 5 – 1. Matters weren’t being helped by the fact that Chelsea were rattled by the goal and looked extremely tentative going forward. The slower attacks helped United disrupt Chelsea’s game and it wasn’t long before the Red Devils scored their second goal of the game. It came in the 11th minute and it came not off a counter attack, but from a routine build up from the back for United.
Rio Ferdinand chipped a ball onto the path of Rafael Da Silva who was being chased by Eden Hazard. Unfortunately Ashley Cole decided to pursue Rafael instead of minding Valencia who was lurking by the touchline. Rafael duly made the pass to perhaps the most dangerous crosser in the United ranks who then made no mistake in finding the most lethal striker the Premier League can boast of at present. Ashley Cole’s mistake dragged David Luiz wide out of position which left Cahill and Ivanovic to deal with Rafael(who had continued his run into the box), Van Persie and Ashley Young.
It was the splash of ice water Chelsea needed in order to wake up from their deep slumber. At least defensively Chelsea improved their organization after the second goal was scored. United continued to successfully stymie Chelsea’s flow by keeping the space between their midfield and defensive lines to a bare minimum, thereby constricting Chelsea’s attackers of the space they needed to operate in. It also seemed as if they were happy to let Chelsea keep the ball and hit on the counter.
David Luiz made De Gea work hard after Chelsea won a free kick courtesy Ramires, who was brought down by Carrick. Hazard then tricked his way past the United defence before unleashing a shot that was parried over by the Spaniard. A quick throw from Oscar then resulted in Mikel trying to cross into an oncoming blue jersey, but the ball hit Evans and went off the post for a corner. De Gea was tested again from a Gary Cahill header which was saved well. Chelsea were now beginning to find their verve as the pressure shifted towards United. In the 41st minute, Juan Mata curled in a wonderful cross which was met by the head of Fernando Torres. De Gea who had already made three saves was called into action for the fourth time.
In the 43rd minute, a surprisingly strong looking Eden Hazard barged into Wayne Rooney and successfully stole the ball away from United’s number ten. Evidently, Rooney’s competitive spirit didn’t take too kindly to that and the striker hacked Hazard down around the edge of the box. Luiz had taken two free kicks before this one, but Mata asserted his rights over the ball as it rested just some twelve yards away from United’s goal. Last year saw Juan Mata hit the post many a time from a similar position, but this time he ensured he wrapped his foot around and beat De Gea at his near post with a magnificently taken curler. Stamford Bridge erupted and the Chelsea faithful found their voice again. The next minute saw Chelsea stage a counter attack with a chance falling to Juan Mata who failed to convert from an acute angle. That would be all for the half as Chelsea went in feeling they could chance the course of this encounter.
The Second Half
Chelsea started the second half strongly yet again with United finding it increasingly difficult to contain the wave after wave of attack that came at them. First it was a blocked Juan Mata shot from a Chelsea corner before Hazard had the chance to make something off a free kick. Bafflingly, David Luiz was deemed to have fouled Van Persie in the box by pulling his shirt and that chance passed by.
Chelsea kept knocking at the door and Oscar almost put Juan Mata through with a wonderful 30 yard lob, but the diminutive Spaniard couldn’t control and take his shot. He did well to keep the ball in play however and tried to cross it in for Torres. As the ball got cleared into the space behind, Oscar found himself in the right spot and teasingly dinked the ball in for Ramires to head home. The comeback was complete and Chelsea had ridden out their nightmare in exhilarating fashion.
Then it was Hazard’s turn to test the United keeper after being put through by yet another delightful ball from Oscar. The Belgian couldn’t finish. United then finally mustered the will to respond in the 60th minute when Van Persie almost got his head to a ball from Ashley Young. Chelsea still had a firm grip upon proceedings at this stage but circumstances (and Clattenburg), would conspire for them to relinquish it from this point on.
United got a chance to mount a counter attack after Chelsea lost the ball in the midfield. Gary Cahill who had been tailing Van Persie got too close to the Dutchman who turned away in a flash and passed it to Ashley Young. The English wide man managed to get into an almost one on one situation with Cech, with Ivanovic scurrying back to make a tackle. Young went to the ground the moment he felt contact from the advancing Chelsea right back. It may have been soft or not, but Ivanovic denied a clear goal scoring chance and there was no Chelsea defender for cover. The Serbian had to make the long walk back to the dressing room and there could be no arguments about the decision.
Ferguson proactively responded to the situation by introducing Javier Hernandez into the battle while Chelsea, who were preparing to bring on Daniel Sturridge for a jaded looking Fernando Torres, had to bring on right back Cesar Azpilicueta instead. Minutes after the incident, Fernando Torres charged at the United defence with the ball at his feet when Johnny Evans lunged at him. It was the sort of tackle that Torres had no option but to escape by trying to leap out of the way. As he did that, Evans did make contact with the striker’s shin and the Chelsea fans were baying for blood. They wanted a red to be shown but Clattenburg produced a yellow. If they were agitated by the yellow card, then there was more to come their way as the referee directed it towards Fernando Torres for simulation. The striker had earlier received a yellow for a misjudged kick on Tom Cleverley, and this time he was sent off which effectively reduced Chelsea to nine men.
The cameras panned to the touchline where a visibly enraged Di Matteo, assistant Steve Holland and Goal Keeping Coach Christophe Lollichon were in a heated argument with Ferguson and the fourth official. Daniel Sturridge had been denied a second opportunity to make his entrance into the game as the man he was supposed to replace was inexplicably sent off. Di Matteo then decided to shut up shop as he decided to introduce Ryan Bertrand in place of Juan Mata, which left Chelsea with eight outfield players defending in banks of four and four. With a two man advantage on the pitch, United naturally held more of the ball and tried breaching Chelsea’s depleted organization.
The third goal finally came for the team in red through Javier Hernandez. Ferguson’s gamble paid off as ‘Little Pea’ rescued his team for the second time in a week. Van Persie found space and lashed a shot at Petr Cech who did extremely well to save it, Hernandez tried to follow up on a rebound and ended up inside the Chelsea net himself as the ball eluded him and made its way to Rafael. The United right back then hit a powerful shot which Hernandez diverted into goal. Replays however showed that the Mexican was in an offside position as Da Silva shot at goal (he was making his way back into an onside position from within Chelsea’s goal). Quite how the officials failed to spot it is a question that won’t have an answer.
The rest of the game saw Sturridge finally come on in place of Eden Hazard who almost fashioned a chance out of nothing after dribbling his way through a few bodies in red. Chelsea managed to hold on to a respectable 2 – 3 thanks to Valencia missing a golden chance in front of goal. The crowd ironically cheered every decision that went Chelsea’s way post United’s winner and after five minutes of added time, it was United who would emerge as victors with Chelsea’s players questioning the referee and his assistants on some of their decision making in the second half.
This is a vital win for United and puts them just a point behind league leaders Chelsea. Despite the controversial nature of the win, there is no doubt that the victory at Stamford Bridge after nearly a decade will no doubt add to the confidence. Sir Alex Ferguson will have a few choice words to utter at his defensive unit though, as they nearly bottled this game after having been at an extremely comfortable position just eleven minutes into the game. Van Persie was no doubt the star of the show for United and what a buy he is turning out to be.
At Chelsea, the feeling of injustice is no doubt prevalent as allegations of a racial nature have been levelled against referee Mark Clattenburg. He is said to have called midfielder John Obi Mikel a ‘Monkey’ and called a player(thought to have been Juan Mata) a ‘Spanish ***t’. Fernando Torres made his displeasure known to the fourth official as he made his way down the tunnel, but he was clearly barking up the wrong tree. Clattenburg will of course explain the contentious call to his bosses at the FA, while the public at large will debate it endlessly. Why referees aren’t allowed to face the media post a game is a question that must be asked. Players, managers and most other authorities usually have to speak, so why not the referee? Surely they could come out and give their view of how they saw things? It would perhaps help quell the debate.
As mentioned earlier, the last United game Clattenburg officiated resulted in a 1 – 6 loss for Ferguson’s men. It was a comprehensive victory for Manchester City minus any controversy. The superior team won at Old Trafford that afternoon. One then wonders why he wasn’t allowed to officiate another Manchester United game for a year.