United will go into the international break ruing, what could have been, a draw (even, to the optimists, a win). Prior to the game, whilst I predicted a 1-1 draw, a nagging feeling told me a defeat to Chelsea was a perfectly possible — and in a parallel universe, even deserving, given our recent form — and I had my mind made up preparing for the worst.
What transpired actually surprised me.
I’d mentioned in passing in the comments, in the week leading up to the match, that our approach should be a safety first 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation to deal with Chelsea’s formidable midfield. I also hoped we would first be a bit cagey to start off the match, and then, based on how well we settled, attack when presented with the chance. A draw, in my mind, was something I would have gleefully taken given the way our players were outplayed by a Liverpool side that was supposedly down in the dumps. [My thinking was, if our players couldn’t rouse themselves for arguably our biggest fixture of any season — Liverpool — they would struggle to be charged up similarly for Chelsea] Add to this, the absence of our best central midfield pair for four years and one would see why United fans, by and large, feared the worst.
So I hoped the idea I had in mind — of best tackling Chelsea — played out. But it was more hope than conviction.
Ferguson, to his credit, got his tactics right to the T — as I hoped. The lads, to their credit, got going the way I’d played in my mind — in Hopeland; initially cagey, looking for chances as they came and held their lines well. And the lads, once again to their credit, were charged up for the occasion beyond any match I’ve seen this season.
And this played out like a dream… till the 76th minute.
The referee infractions right through the match annoyed me. But I was willing to forgive all that. After all, we were 0-0 and created the better chances in the second half. Fletcher fought like a lion, like he always does. Anderson, who I thought was not the best in the first half, came into his own towards the latter stages of the first and the rest of the match thereon; giving us more attacking thrust in midfield, while doing a good job — alongside Fletcher — in nullifying Deco and Essien. Also, was Ballack playing? And, I happened to notice Lampard when he was celebrating alongside Terry.
Same with our defence. Brown, after a questionable performance against CSKA, was up for this one. He was peerless, until a whining, cheating, moaning (yet built like a brick shithouse) player pulled him down from a suspiciously offside position. And, by the way, in case you didn’t know, Jonny Evans is only 21 years of age. There are reports that he has a troublesome ankle and will eventually require surgery but is currently playing through all that. Defenders typically peak in the latter half of their 20s, and if he stays healthy we have a gem in this boy. It’s a blessing in disguise that Rio is out indefinitely — as much as we’d like a fully fit Rio. Yesterday, he struck a stud into the heart of said brick shithouse, and while my first reaction on seeing the replay was “Ouch!”, my opinion since then has been revised, all things considered. I don’t have to speak my mind on this — it’s better left unsaid.
Anyway, the 76th minute…
Regulars would know I typically don’t lay blame on the referees after every defeat. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. But yesterday was some rubbish officiating, to put it mildly. This match had inconsistencies peppered all over it, to either side — although the crucial ones went Chelsea’s way. These things always happen when you are the home team and a “big four” side, but Fletcher’s tackle was as clean as they get. And, as Ferguson later said, the positioning of the referee for the resulting free kick was horrendous. There were marginal calls for the Valencia penalty, and a much more serious error on Rooney’s offside call. On reflection, Evans was also a bit lucky to get away. The timekeeping, considering Alex’s substitution took about a minute was also dodgy. So there…
We can take heart from a wonderfully rousing performance, and one hopes this gets the side focused for the rest of the year. Our schedule seems gentle for the rest of the year right till the end of January where we face Arsenal at the Emirates. One hopes we can go on a run and expect Chelsea and Arsenal to drop points to stay within range.
Of course, the win doesn’t disguise the fact that we lack creativity going forward and we will struggle against the bigger sides. But with a dominant midfield, against inferior defences, we could do a much better job. If we saw even a bit of the fire we did see against Chelsea, I think we’ll be well positioned to put pressure on the league leaders.
Bonus material, just to keep the mind off this:
The Lyon-Marseille match in the weekend was a 5-5 thriller! Yes, you read it right: 5-5! Here’s the extended highlights of the game. Good fun.
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