Wednesday 21 February 2018

Paul Hayward: Chelsea flaws mock legacy of special one

These are the contests that Premier League rookies are desperate to win. They try their luck in the English pinball game and find Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger arranged mightily against them.

Andre Villas-Boas has a CV to be proud of but is too young and inexperienced to be found on management's Mount Rushmore.

To get there he needs victories over the Manchester giants, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle. Wins in tight games establish an aura, a sense of conquest on hostile ground.

Fifty minutes into this thrilling battle at the Bridge, Villas-Boas must have thought he had Ferguson licked. Chelsea had burst from the dressing-room after the interval to score a goal from the gods. Two-nil, and Stamford Bridge was snow-meltingly hot with joy.

Better yet, when Juan Mata curled in a free-kick five minutes later it bounced off David Luiz's extravagant coif and into the net via Rio Ferdinand's shoulder. This, surely, was Villas-Boas' chance to complete a notable Manchester double.

Now all Chelsea needed to press home their gains was 40 minutes of calm, of stubbornness and ball retention. Villas-Boas was hired by Roman Abramovich to up the entertainment ante, but now another need cried out.

Without Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole, they needed to display the old Mourinho-esque resilience and hold their ground in the face of a United onslaught.

In this they failed, in part, it should be said, because the second of United's penalties originated in that modern shadowland where referees display so much bafflement.

Institutionalised confusion about what constitutes a penalty has become a huge factor in this thrilling title race. All forms of contact inside the box are threatening to lead to spot-kicks as strikers perfect the art of seeking out a defender's leg or foot to justify a tumble.

Afterwards, Villas-Boas was furious as he slammed the standard of Premier League refereeing.

"We expect, in top games, top refs and, at the moment, it hasn't been happening for us," he said. "It didn't happen at Old Trafford (in September's league match, which United won 3-1) with two goals offside, and maybe today a dubious decision that, in the end, shifted the running of the game. The first one is an obvious penalty, the second very, very dubious. I'm not sure if he's compensating from anything in the first half (when United were denied two strong claims), but it was the wrong decision."

Villas-Boas added: "No excuses. Three-nil up is an excellent result. Pity we couldn't hold on at 3-2. We had a great chance to go 4-3 up but it was a great save by de Gea from Mata."

Chelsea's young manager praised Ferguson's "attacking substitutions", but no mention was made of the shockingly poor positioning by Gary Cahill and Luiz as Ryan Giggs chipped a ball in for Javier Hernandez to head United's equaliser.

Changing a solid side to make them more attacking always runs the risk of defensive destabilisation and Chelsea are still too easy to peel open.


Against that they have the marvellous Mata to supply the kind of artistic flourishes Abramovich craves. His volley for Chelsea's second was sublime. Yet the league table says Roman's empire is embroiled in a struggle for fourth place, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Meanwhile, Ferguson also had issue with the officials after his side were denied two spot-kicks in the first half, when Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young were brought down.

"I don't blame Howard Webb, I blame the linesman. I can't understand that," Ferguson said of the incidents. "The linesman should have given two penalties. They happened right in front of him -- how can he not see that?"

The point for United meant they remained two points behind leaders Manchester City and Ferguson insisted: "I see it as two points dropped, although we played so well after getting off to such to a terrible start.

"It's not easy to come back like that but we are a far better team that what you saw today. We had a bit of bad luck with the goals but the players didn't let it affect them."

Ferguson had special words of under-fire goalkeeper De Gea.

"His save from Mata was fantastic. We've seen that talent that he has and in two or three years' time you are going to see all that," he said. "He's had a difficult start but he was great for us today." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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