I’ve made it clear in recent weeks that Chelsea’s November fixtures against Man Utd and Arsenal will give the clearest indication so far of the strength of Chelsea’s challenge this season. As it was, Chelsea came through the first of those tests yesterday – but without flying colours.
To have expected flying colours would have been wishful thinking however. Yes, Chelsea have played some good football over the last couple of months, but playing a very good Utd side adept in finding ways to win matches was always going to prove a more vigorous challenge than the likes of Bolton, Blackburn and Fulham.
This was largely an inconsistent grind of a performance from Chelsea in which we only saw glimpses of the team’s full ability. Whatever you might read about Man Utd being the better side (something I’m not sure is true) the game’s ebb and flow was dictated by the visiting side coming to Stamford Bridge with their primary aim being to contain the league leaders. I can’t remember a time when Manchester United – the Champions, remember – would come to Stamford Bridge and play three defensive or holding midfield players.
I don’t disagree with Ferguson’s strategy, however. With a depleted defence, the Scot needed to provide his backline with as much protection as possible from the on-form Didier Drogba by drying up the supply to the Chelsea frontman. And it worked. Fletcher, Anderson and Carrick put in very sound defensive performances, hassling and harrying Chelsea’s superior (on paper, at least) central midfield.
As a result, Deco was almost completely ineffectual for the sixty minutes he was on the field and Drogba – who was well marshalled by both Utd centre halves – was feeding off scraps. Under pressure, Lampard and Ballack were inconsistent on the ball. In contrast Essien was in great form throughout, excellent shielding the Chelsea back four and making numerous bison-like forays up the centre. Dropping deep, Anelka was by a margin Chelsea’s most dangerous player, although Ivanovic did exceed expectations down the right.
This wasn’t the one-touch Chelsea we had grown used to seeing over the last four or five games, and as such it was an underwhelming performance in which a chronic lack of width made the Blues very predictable. But this was in the context of playing against a team set-up to first contain and then try and hit Chelsea on the break. Utd did have some success with the latter through Rooney who was single-handedly trying to take the game to Chelsea.
Playing on his own, Rooney’s efforts wouldn’t come to much, although he was certainly denied a one-on-one with Cech when the linesman incorrectly flagged him offside in the first half. Chelsea’s defence didn’t put a foot wrong – with John Terry consistently denying Rooney throughout the first half in particular. Valencia looked unconvincing and Giggs, for me, was hopeless in the final third.
Titanic top-of-the-league clashes between well-matched sides are often decided by a slice of luck, and Ferguson would have you believe that’s what happened yesterday. But he’s only partially right.
The Chelsea goal came on 76 minutes after Fletcher had fouled Ashley Cole to the right of the Utd area. Whilst Fletcher got the ball, one could very easily argue that he needlessly went through Cole afterwards. Utd complained, and their defence didn’t organise itself as Lampard swung in a perfectly flighted ball into the box. When Terry (or was it Anelka?) headed the ball towards goal, Drogba was onside. The only complaint Man Utd can have with the goal is whether Drogba hauled Wes Brown down or not. I would suggest that, while there was certainly contact, it was contact not unlike anything we see week in week out and Brown should have been stronger.
One nil up, and stress levels for Chelsea fans suddenly went through the roof. But, if anything, the threat to the Chelsea goal actually subsided after that point, despite the introduction of Owen, and Man Utd fans looking to find reasons for the loss should look no further than the team’s toothlessness in the final third yesterday.
Clearly frustrated at either going one nil down or the perceived injustice of the referee’s decisions – or both – many of United’s players lost their cool. Fletcher, Evans, Anderson and Valencia were all guilty of bad, over-aggressive challenges (although Carvalho didn’t need to go down so theatrically following an off-the-ball incident with Evans). Rooney’s mouthing of ‘twelve men’ to the Sky Sports cameras after the whistle goes some way to showing how their team is accustomed to taking defeat.
Indeed even before the goal Utd’s frustration had been starting to show: Evans should have been given a red card for what could be described as a Kung-Fu kick to Drogba’s ribs. Drogba’s tendency to over-react might explain why the referee chose to ignore the incident.
It was hardly a classic, but the win left Chelsea five points clear at the top of the table (albeit with Arsenal having a game in hand) and early favourites to reclaim the Premier League title. This was an awkward performance however that, in all honesty, probably didn’t merit the win and was helped by a slice of luck. But, as the old cliché goes, good sides win while playing badly. Chelsea certainly did that yesterday and, as One Step Beyond sounded out at full time, it was clear that’s all the Chelsea faithful care about.