|photo by thelazydba||via PhotoRee|
The slight surprise in today's lineup is that Rio Ferdinand is judged unfit to play, mandating Phil Jones and Jonny Evans to deputise at center half for the home side. With Chris Smalling at right back, it means that United will face their arch-rival Blues at home with a less-than-experienced back four. As if anticipating a game which could see more than a few goals, Sir Alex has selected some real offensive firepower in the Reds' attack, with Chicharito partnering Wayne Rooney up top, and Nani and Ashley Young manning the wings. Darren Fletcher and Anderson are handed the keys to the engine room, while David De Gea covers the net with Fergie's strong pre-game endorsement.
Chelsea sport a new look, as well, with Juan Mata on the flank and Raul Meireles in the middle, and Fernando Torres partners Danny Sturridge up top, as new coach Andre Villas-Boas continues his tinkering efforts to find an ideal starting eleven. It's a mark of how much both teams have changed since they last met back in May, and the Reds will hope to keep the hoodoo on the Blues in a League encounter that may ultimately have an impact on the title race.
United look to play the ball over the top to Hernandez in the early going, as they try to exploit Chelsea's lack of defensive pace. At the other end, De Gea is called into action, parrying a ball away from the goal line with his feet on Chelsea's very first attack of the afternoon. In truth, United look a bit sloppy in the opening minutes, with a couple giveaways offering Chelsea an early toe hold into the match.
Chris Smalling opens the scoring for the home side in the eighth minute, with nary a blue shirt in sight off a curling Ashley Young free kick from just outside the 18 yard box. With all of the talented offensive players on the pitch, Smalling wouldn't have been the first name you'd have picked to open the scoring, and his goal will surely send Villas-Boas back to the film room to study how the United right back was left so wide open -- although the explanation may begin with just the barest hint of offside on Smalling's part.
Torres is just wide of the mark when Ando gifts a giveaway deep in his own territory, and Sir Alex will definitely want to address this worrying tendency at the interval. Thank God the giveaway was to Torres, who rushes his final shot and misses goal -- for the umpteenth time this season. Anderson gives the ball away yet again, and the resulting ball eventually leads to a Chelsea corner, which De Gea saves comfortably.
Referee Phil Dowd conveniently ignores Frank Lampard's handball in the box in an effort to keep the scoreline close, and the non-call leads to another Chelsea attack that ends in a weak Sturridge fizzler. When Lampard whizzes a shot just wide in yet another threat on goal, though, it has to be said that Chelsea have shown up today at Old Trafford --and have looked, on balance, the more dangerous of the two sides in the game's opening 20 minutes.
Rooney and Chicharito each flub a chance in front of Petr Cech, and United is more than fortunate when the Blues storm the ball upfield -- with only a fine De Gea save keeping Chelsea from tying the contest. Fernando Torres offers a perfect roller through the middle of an empty box, and Ramires should have let it continue straight to an unmarked and onrushing Sturridge, as the United defense begin to look suspiciously leaky.
Referee Dowd continues to call the game in favor of the visitors, ignoring an Branislav Ivanovich last man knockdown of Chicharito, and the contest is thus finely balanced as it hits the half hour mark. It's at this point, though, that the contest turns irrevocably in the home side's favor. Nani fires a laser past Cech to double the scoreline, and Raul Meireles and John Terry should either have to pay Nani or ask the Portuguese wideman for his autograph, as they were turned into pure spectators on the fantastic solo effort, which leaves even Sir Alex shaking his head on the sideline.
Possession is knotted at 50-50 as the teams get ready for the break, but the Reds are not yet quite ready to call it quits: Phil Jones cuts through the Chelsea defense like a hot knife through butter, and when he jinks the ball to Nani, John Terry can only swipe at the ball with his foot. When the resulting deflection bounces off Nani's foot toward the center of the box, the winger has an assist, and Wayne Rooney has his ninth goal of the campaign to give United a 3-nil advantage at halftime.
Nicolas Anelka replaces Frank Lampard at the beginning of the second half in a bid to bring more width to Chelsea's attack, and the moves pays an immediate dividend. Anelka picks out Torres for the Spaniard's first goal of the season before the second half is yet a minute old, and it's game on, 3-1 United. When Ramires enters the book shortly afterward for a rash tackle on Rooney, the mood of the contest turns a bit spiky, as well.
Nani slams a fast break shot off the underside of the bar before Jose Bosignwa is ultimately singled out for a penalty when he bundles the winger over -- Nani is causing constant problems for the Chelsea defense this afternoon, and his efforts are bearing fruit. As Wayne Rooney steps to the spot with a chance for a 4-1 lead, John Terry is carded for dissent -- perhaps in an effort to distract his England teammate. Paying homage to the Chelsea skipper, Rooney slips, and the penalty is blown wide and well over the bar. The United front man completely loses his footing in a very strange effort, taking a divot out of the turf of which Rory McIlroy would be proud.
Michael Carrick and AnotnioValencia replace Anderson and Smalling, with Valencia slotting in at right back to bolster the defense. The game goes sideways for a bit, as both sides take a breather from the non-stop action entering the final quarter of the match. Romelu Lukaku replaces Sturridge in a last ditch Villas-Boas effort to gain a point, but it's Fernando Torres who comes closest to pulling another back for the Blues, before putting his second shot well over the bar.
Old Trafford is eerly quiet as the teams lock horns over the final twenty minutes. Dimitar Berbatov makes a cameo late appearance, as does John Obi Mikel for Chelsea. Rooney scuffs another relatively easy chance at goal, and Ashley Cole is very fortunate not to be sent off with a straight red for launching himself into Chicharito's shin, causing the Mexican to miss a shot on goal. It's a worrying sight for United fans as Chicharito is down for quite a while before moving ever so gingerly off the pitch, and it causes one to ask: if it's a card inside the box, surely a second penalty could not have been far behind....
If a single moment can be said to encapsulate a player's sum and total experience, when Fernando Torres somehow conspires to miss a wide open goal that could have seriously put some pressure on United, it's shocking at how poor the Spaniard's form has become since he's joined the Blues. Although Torres has indeed played better in his last two games, even the announcers on televsion admit some sympathy for the Spaniard's plight with his latest bizarre implosion.
Berbatov manages a very strange miss of his own in stoppage time, played well onside by an unselfish Wayne Rooney pass that was the slightest bit ahead of the Bulgarian, and only Ashley Cole skidding into his own goal line to keep the ball from crossing keeps the scoreline from showing a 4-1 bulge for the Reds at the final whistle.
It's an odd one to be sure: United were the better team on the afternoon, but the final scoreline probably flatters the home side just a bit. Nevermind the score, though, as it's the three points that the Reds gain that really count, as they continue their perfect record for the season, and move top of the league by themselves for the first time.
This is farlieonfootie for September 19.