Fergie cries foul as Drogba puts Blues in pole position
The Premier League may not have been won by Chelsea at Old Trafford yesterday but it might have been lost by Alex Ferguson when he decided to attack referee Alan Wiley last October.
Manchester United have been penalised ever since by officials who seemed to have decided that they had enough of being pushed around. The officials gave a routinely useless performance at Old Trafford yesterday. The only surprise was that their poor decisions ended up costing Manchester United, not their opponents.
Didier Drogba was clearly offside when he broke through to score the decisive second goal. It was a goal that guaranteed Chelsea's victory and made them, Ferguson conceded, favourites in the title race.
"What I can't understand is that the linesman is directly in front of it, there's not a soul in front of him and he gets it wrong," Ferguson said. "In a game of that magnitude, you need quality officials and we didn't get them today I'm afraid . . . poor, poor performances."
Mike Dean, yesterday's referee, appeared to be responding to comments about his own recent performances when he refused to give a penalty for a foul on Ji-Sung Park and an equally clear one for Chelsea when Nicolas Anelka was knocked over by Gary Neville.
Dean had given 16 penalties in 24 Premier League matches and it appeared that was the statistic he was most concerned with.
He cannot be directly held responsible for the award of Drogba's goal but the fearlessness with which many officials now handle Manchester United, even if it is the fearlessness to get things horribly wrong, is a change from the days when United could hope for the benefit of the doubt, not to mention the benefit of incompetence.
Without that assistance and, more crucially, without Wayne Rooney, United looked ordinary. This was supposed to be the day when the champions would prove that they were more than just a one-man team
Instead they were lifeless without Rooney, turning instead to three men over 35 -- Giggs, Scholes and Neville -- for the wisdom to get them through.
Ferguson had once written off Chelsea on the grounds that they weren't getting any younger but it was United that creaked. His side, he said later, were leggy in a first half in which Chelsea dominated.
Chelsea's win allowed Arsenal to believe they were still in with a chance of the title. It took the kind of decision Arsenal feel they were entitled to to change the game. Wolves' captain Karl Henry was sent-off for a tackle on Tomas Rosicky which caused outrage among the Arsenal players and staff. Even with that advantage, they still had to wait until injury-time. Nicklas Bendtner got another late goal to keep Arsenal within three points of the top in a title race which is notable for the weaknesses in each challenger.
Arsenal are still clinging to their reasons to believe. Chelsea now have them in abundance. Manchester United have placed their faith in one man and one man's ankle.
Carlo Ancelotti had surprised everyone by selecting the team that beat Aston Villa last week. Drogba was kept on the bench, nursing an injury but it still seemed like a gamble from the manager.
He had picked a side to take the game to United and United let them. Florent Malouda was the game's most dangerous player, supported from left-back by Yuri Zhirkov, while the trusted leaders John Terry and Frank Lampard did what they had to do to inspire and frustrate.
United were frustrated. Joe Cole's opening goal should have provoked a reaction but it took 45 minutes. Then Drogba's goal should have led to an onslaught.
Instead Federico Macheda, who had a huge impact this time last year, bundled one in but there was nothing of the air of relentless inevitability about United's charge which has always distinguished them at this stage of the season.
Instead there was desperation. They threw men, including Edwin van der Sar, forward, but they seemed to do so without hope. Their hope was sitting in a private box. There was some giddy speculation that United might risk him for the game against Bayern on Wednesday but it is not exaggeration to say that Manchester United's season depends on his fitness. Especially as Ferguson has alienated referees.
Dimitar Berbatov had a chance to equalise in injury-time but he fluffed it. At that moment, the 80 per cent of United fans who appreciate him according to Ferguson were hard to find.
United then petered out. There was only four minutes of injury-time, only four minutes with United losing at home. It was another indication that things had changed.
"When I saw it was Mike Dean, I did worry," Ferguson said later. "But people are criticising him and I'm not going to go down that road." Too much damage has already been done for this conciliatory change of heart.