Chelsea blow title race wide open
Man United 1
Published 02/03/2011 | 05:00
Chelsea are not going to let the title go without a fight. Frank Lampard and Co finally remembered they were champions last night, playing with a tempo and hunger in the second half that turned this game on its head.
Trailing to Wayne Rooney's first-half strike, Chelsea rallied in the second period and equalised with a fine volley from David Luiz, not the winter signing expected to score first. With Fernando Torres again subdued, the winner came from a Lampard penalty.
This game produced such compelling entertainment that the respective fans soon forgot to boo Rooney and Ashley Cole for their recent weaknesses.
This was a terrific game, a match that showed all the tempo and drama of the Premier League. There were fine goals and even the sight of Ryan Giggs arriving to equal Bobby Charlton's club record of 606 league games.
Tackles thudded in. Passes were swept wide. The flow was relentless, a red and blue tide rolling between Shed End and Matthew Harding Stand.
Chelsea responded after the break but the first half was dominated by the league pace-setters. For the first time in 165 games, United had been unchanged, although even Ferguson admitted Rooney was "fortunate" to be available following his weekend elbow.
The other of the England bad boys, Cole, started for Chelsea, enduring regular boos like Rooney. Following the surrender of the English FA in the face of player-power, the public revealed its displeasure. As Cole received a flick from John Terry near the Shed, United fans held up a sign that read "Don't Shoot Ashley". Cole had no intentions, working the ball on to Torres, who was running down the channel. Torres, quiet before the interval, crossed low and hard, but Nemanja Vidic was alive to the danger, nipping in to clear.
A good game broke out, assisted by referee Martin Atkinson's willingness to play advantage. The onus was on Chelsea to attack, knowing it was win or bust if they wanted to have any chance of getting back into the title race.
Nicolas Anelka quickly set up Florent Malouda, whose shot was saved by the evergreen Edwin van der Sar.
But United were the hungrier for 45 minutes. Rooney played off Javier Hernandez while Nani sped constantly down the left, often to good effect.
Nani soon tested Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech but attention was occasionally drawn to the dark arts. Chelsea briefly used Michael Carrick for target practice, first Cole, appropriately. Carrick survived that and then shook off another late tackle from Ramires.
United settled the better, looking fluid in their 4-4-1-1 system. Darren Fletcher largely kept Cole deep. Paul Scholes and Carrick largely controlled the centre, eclipsing Michael Essien and Lampard for a half. Patrice Evra kept making good ground down the left, also serving to anchor Branislav Ivanovic in his own half. The Serb's fuse began burning, catching Nani, and soon swearing at Evra. Rooney came calling with a third of this absorbing game played.
It had to be him. When Nani found Rooney 20 yards out, the danger should still have been tackled. Barricades could have been manned. But Chelsea responded too slowly. Ivanovic, perhaps dizzy from having to deal with Evra and Nani, allowed Rooney to advance, perhaps believing he could pass the striker on to Luiz.
The Brazilian centre-half seemed more distracted by Hernandez's presence. So Rooney pushed on, delighting in finding himself unmarked.
Lampard realised the forward's intent, stretching out a leg in an attempt to close Rooney down. No chance. Rooney caught the ball hard and true, sending it flying past Cech. For all the quality of Rooney's shot, such an experienced 'keeper as Cech should have reacted better.
His sluggishness reflected Chelsea's first-half mood, such a contrast to their later brio. Terry looked out of sorts, rattling into Hernandez, gifting United a free. The Stretford End on tour loved it, racing through their song-book, selecting lyrics to taunt their hosts. They sang of Terry missing that Champions League final penalty in Moscow. They sang of Ancelotti having to prepare to hand over the league trophy.
Stung by the song-lines and the scoreline, Chelsea responded. When Evra upended Torres, Lampard arrowed his free-kick past United's two-man wall.
Showing better reflexes than Cech, Van der Sar reacted brilliantly, parrying Lampard's strong kick. Ivanovic was quickest to the rebound, forcing the ball towards goal. Vidic had covered well, managing to chest the ball away and Van der Sar completed the clearance, superbly clawing it away from blue shirts.
Chelsea needed a sharper cutting edge, needed Torres to show more of the old predatory menace that had brought him such joy against Vidic and United in the past. Struggling to rediscover his elegant stride, Torres briefly demonstrated a fractious streak, leaving a foot in on Scholes, who responded with a frosty look. Torres, suddenly all contrition, then apologised.
As the half closed, Chelsea began to open up, revealing a more attacking approach, although their best chance arrived when Vidic fouled Essien 25 yards out. Cole bent the free-kick high, wide and far from handsome.
The Blues' mood was lifting, their belief returning. Gianluca Vialli was paraded before the crowd at the interval, further enlivening the atmosphere. When Vialli then embraced the tracksuited Drogba before the restart, the Bridge was almost in ferment.
So began an epic 45 minutes. Strong words were clearly said in the home dressing-room. Carlo Ancelotti's players snapped into challenges, occasionally too robustly. Far more physical, far more positive in possession, Chelsea went hunting the equaliser. It soon arrived when Ivanovic flicked the ball on and Luiz followed its descent avidly.
Evra sought to intervene but Luiz was too quick, too accurate. The Brazilian's volley was magnificent, angled past Evra and Van der Sar.
Chelsea were completely transformed. So was Ramires, driving on. So was Ancelotti, looking far less tense. He then sent on Yuri Zhirkov, who was soon breaking into the United box, falling to earth when challenged by Chris Smalling. Atkinson pointed to the spot, stirring anger amongst the visitors, particularly when Lampard fired Chelsea ahead.
The champions could have added another but Zhirkov's shot clipped Vidic and bounced clear off a post. Worse befell United when Vidic was dismissed for a second yellow, ruling him out of Sunday's trip to Anfield where the home side hope Andy Carroll will make his debut. (© Daily Telegraph, London)