Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Bosingwa
Sturridge, Torres, Malouda
MANCHESTER UNITED: (4-4-1-1)
Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra
Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Young
All the talk about this game by so called football loyalists will centre on the performance of referee Howard Webb. Most of it will be about how he somehow managed to give Manchester United a couple of non-existent penalties. But in reality, Andre Villas-Boas and Chelsea missed a great chance in their attempt to seal fourth place.
As relevant as Webb’s penalty area decisions were to the final result, Chelsea were really in the driving seat early on and should have won the game. They didn’t deserve to be 3 goals up inside 50 minutes, but they were. And it was all down to United’s poor defending.
The first of Chelsea’s goals came from an own goal by Johnny Evans. Considered by Sir Alex Ferguson the most experienced of the young defensive trio of him, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, he got to start alongside the quickly declining Rio Ferdinand. His positioning for the own goal was wanting, but he wasn’t helped by his captain, Patrice Evra, who should have done better to prevent Daniel Sturridge from getting to the by line and whipping a ball across goal.
Chelsea’s second was a masterpiece, nay a ‘Mata-piece.’ It came with 50 seconds on the clock into the second half. Fernando Torres got the ball down the right and whipped in a wonderful cross into the area for his fellow Spaniard. Juan Mata met it with a left foot volley and hammered it into the roof of the net. The third came minutes later. A needless free kick was conceded by Manchester United on the edge of the penalty area. Mata curled the ball into the box and Rio Ferdinand, who should have been much tighter to David Luiz, paid for his error by having the ball deflect off his shoulder from the Brazilian’s free header, and leave David De Gea with no chance of saving it.
With Chelsea 3-0 up, and at home, it seemed that they had the game done and dusted. All that was required of them now was to see out the game.
But rather than look to control the tempo of the game, Chelsea let United see most of the ball and even when they had it, they cheaply gave it away. This was partly a result of Sir Alex’s immediate response to the 3rd goal. He brought on Javier Hernandez for Ashley Young. ‘Chicharito’ went upfront and Danny Welbeck dropped to the left of midfield. This helped United in keeping possession since Welbeck is less complicated when on the ball as compared to Young, and he usually plays quick one touch passes with his teammates. On the other hand, Chicharito was probably brought on because he is the best of the United strikers in finding space for himself, and there was that small matter of how well Chicharito had played against Chelsea’s debutant, Gary Cahill earlier on in the season when Cahill was at Bolton Wanderers (Sir Alex did admit after the game that he regretted not having started with the Mexican.)
That said however, Chelsea still should have dominated the midfield, seeing as they outnumbered the United midfield 3 to 2 (Michael Essien, Raul Meireles and Juan Mata to United’s Carrick and Giggs) and the fact that they had better runners in midfield.
The loss of the midfield battle by Chelsea led to United having enough room to pick out passes into players in the Chelsea penalty area. This is how the penalties came about. With United getting balls into the box, Chelsea was forced to defend desperately. And in their desperation, Welbeck and Evra did what most other professional players would do once they felt contact in the penalty area, they went down. Whether or not the two were penalties is subject to debate, but the United players, (just as Manchester City’s Adam Johnson had done 24 hours earlier in their 3-0 win against Fulham) forced the referee into making a decision. The decisions, unfortunately for Chelsea, went against them in the worst possible way, penalties to United.
The Scholes Factor
Wayne Rooney coolly dispatched both penalties. By this time, Paul Scholes had been brought onto the pitch to further assist in keeping hold of possession. He replaced Rafael, which meant that Antonio Valencia dropped back into right back, Welbeck switched across from left midfield to right, and Giggs was pushed to the left to allow Scholes to move into the center of midfield. Immediately, Scholes got into his rhythm, and bossed the midfield, spraying passes left right and center. (By the end of the game, he had attempted 27 passes, of which 24 were completed.)
Andre Villas-Boas noticed this change and made a change of his own to try and counter this. He brought on Oriol Romeu for Sturridge. At first, it seemed an odd substitution to make, but it was a sensible one. Chelsea’s shape switched to a flat 4-3-3, with Romeu slotting in between Essien and Meireles. Mata pushed up onto the right of the forward line. With Chelsea still a goal up, this change was sensible, as it allowed Chelsea to have 3 out and out midfielders in the middle to minimize Scholes’ influence, while retaining the option of lethal counter attack.
However, this did not materialize as expected for Chelsea, and United continued dominating possession. With 7 minutes remaining, United’s possession finally bore fruit. Wayne Rooney, who usually drops deep to collect the ball, got the ball in the area in between the midfield and the defense. The defence backed off him and he took a shot. Petr Cech did well to parry it away from goal, but his defence did not react quickly, so the ball was picked up by Giggs on the left of the 18-yard area. With one look, he saw Chicharito unmarked inside the 6-yard box. Failure to mark a striker inside the 6-yard box is always suicidal, and Giggs’ cross, though perfect did not need a perfect header on the end of it. Chicharito’s header was actually right at Cech, but the close proximity to goal meant that the ball just went through the Czech goalkeeper, and United were level.
Though both sides looked for a winner late on, De Gea’s wonderful pair of saves, first from Mata’s free kick, then from Cahill’s drive, meant that the spoils were shared.
They were lucky to earn a point. But as they say, in this world, you make your own luck. they kept on passing the ball into the areas that mattered and from that, they got lucky enough to be awarded two penalties. But you’ve got to sore the penalties either way, and Wayne Rooney did exactly that.
Questions will however continue to arise about their defence. Vidic is still being missed immensely, and no one else seems to be doing the job well. Though De Gea put in a relatively good performance this time round, he is still yet to convince.
A point means that they lost ground on league leaders Manchester City. But with only two points separating them, Sir Alex must be relishing the challenge as the season approaches his favourite part- the business end.
They failed to capitalize on a three goal lead by failing to command the midfield and at times, especially for the 3rd goal, defending poorly. It should be noted however that key players were missing, either through injury (Ramires, Frank Lampard), suspension (John Terry, Ashley Cole) and international duty (Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou). They also had a debutant in defence, Gary Cahill, and Michael Essien hasn’t played much football in the past two years, thus he is devoid of much match fitness.
This however did look more of an Andre Villas-Boas team, with many of his signings (Mata, Romeu, Cahill, Meireles) and many of those whom have found favor with him e.g. Sturridge, Torres, David Luiz and Bosingwa getting to play. For a period at the start of the second half, they looked as if they were going to massacre the Red Devils, and there are encouraging signs that Villas-Boas is slowly getting his message across to the team. It remains to be seen whether Roman Abramovich will continue to keep faith in the young Portuguese manager, or whether, as in the past, he will run out of patience.
Once in a while, the referee becomes the talking point of an otherwise exciting game of football, and none more so than when Howard Webb (or any other referee, if you believe the conspiracies) takes charge of a Manchester United game. It is however unfair to question the performance of the referee. He is after all human, and he has to make split second decisions whilst in the middle of a highly charged Barclay Premier League fixture, not made any easier by the combined chaos of the players and the fans. He also does not have the luxury of multiple video replays with reverse angles. That said however, Howard Webb is one of the best referees in world football, evidenced by the fact that he took charge of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final. The best referees get the big games, such as this one. And in the big games, the least that is required of the best referees is to get the big decisions right.