United Down But Not Quite Out
By David Hamill
It wasn’t quite the fireworks anticipated when first met second at Stamford Bridge on Sunday – in fact it took nearly 75 minutes before there was even a spark.
But that didn’t matter one bit for Chelsea, who reverted to their ‘it’s not pretty but effective’ approach to claim all three points against Manchester United thanks to the combined efforts of John Terry and Nicolas Anelka.
Again, the actual identity of the scorer will matter little for Chelsea, as does the origins of how the decisive blow came about.
Take your pick from Ashley Cole’s theatrical dive that won the crucial free-kick or Didier Drogba’s dubious duel-role in which the Ivorian fouled Wes Brown and strayed offside as the ball drifted into the net, but either way Chelsea desperately needed the intervention from the officials to make the breakthrough because they didn’t look like troubling the visitors from any other avenue.
Before the game, Carlo Ancelotti made the honest assessment that every team is vulnerable, even with the formidable squad he has at his disposal and the lofty position they are in both domestically and in Europe.
If there was any evidence to support this claim then it was witnessed at Stamford Bridge because Chelsea were terrible. In what was one of their worst performances of the season they were outplayed and outfought for long spells by a United side who were without their first-choice centre-back pairing.
There appeared to be a massive gulf in class when the two line-ups were announced and it was difficult to see anything other than a comfortable win for the hosts. But Chelsea lost the midfield battle and struggled to contain the opposition, with Darren Fletcher bossing the game.
When you look at some of United’s must influential players in the past who have played in a similar position to that of Fletcher’s - linchpins like Bryan Robson and Roy Keane – you wonder if the Scot is fit to lace the boots of his predecessors. But whether or not it’s an indictment of the lack of quality United currently have in midfield, there is no getting away from the fact that he has now become the club’s most important player for the big games.
The jury is still out Fletcher and he needs to be playing out of his skin to make an impact, because when he’s having an off-day, even against lesser teams, he can appear gangly and ragged. But he was magnificent against Chelsea.
Ironically, it was his best attribute, winning the ball back, and something he done time and time against the Blues, that led to Ashley Cole throwing himself up into the air and earning the match-winning set-piece.
On the evidence of the game on Sunday, there is enough to suggest that Chelsea aren’t invincible, while United aren’t finished in the title race yet - a contrast to the general feeling before kick-off.
But the fact remains that Ancelotti’s side, despite being at their worst, still recorded a win against a United side that produced arguably their most assured display of the season so far.
That ability is something United are only too well aware of and there have been plenty of occasions in the past when a below-par team have been totally outplayed and have still managed to grind out a win, sometimes with the aid of refereeing decisions.
With three defeats already this season there is no margin for error and one more slip-up would see an eight-point gap develop between themselves and Chelsea, and in that event, nobody would remember their gallant effort at the Bridge.
Tags: Stamford Bridge, Chelsea, Manchester United, John Terry, Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Carlo Ancelotti, Darren Fletcher, Ashley Cole