Thursday, April 7, 2011

Breaking the Duck

photo by ansikvia PhotoRee

I'm a bundle of nerves pre-match, as United get set to face Chelsea at the Bridge for the first leg of the two-legged Champions League tie. Sir Alex opts to rest Nani, and keep Berbatov pinned to his customary seat on the bench, while Rooney and Little Pea get the start, the former with rumors of his two game ban increasing to three in the pre-match banter. Rio Ferdinand makes his return to the lineup to partner Vidic in central defense, so there'll be no excuses for not having our best side available today.  Pre-game, I find myself wondering whose side the referee is on, though.

Surpirsingly, it's a mixed bar at which I'm watching the game, half United fans and half Chelsea fans. Normally I'd seek to watch this game alone in the quiet of my own home -- better to concentrate -- but I'm once again on the road for work as gameday rolls around. No matter, there's always a bar nearby, but I'm surprised to see this one on the list of Red-friendly US bars after seeing so many patrons in blue.

The game opens with a bang, Fernando Torres picked out in on goal, requiring Ferdinand to come to the rescue and boot the ball away. A minute later and United's main man, Wayne Rooney is rolling around on the pitch howling in pain as Michael Essien attempts to surgically remove the Englishman's ankle with his boot.  Although Sir Alex is immediately up on his feet and asking for a foul, Rooney is quickly back to his feet, as well, and the United faithful can collectively exhale. 

United appear to have caught my case of the nerves to start the match. They're more than a bit sloppy in the early going, with both Carrick and Valencia guilty of easy giveaways. Torres looks quick early on, and Chelsea have lots of room on the pitch, particularly down Evra's side.

United steadily play their way back into the march as the nerves burn off, but two successive corners come to naught. Patrice Evra looks a bit shaky at fullback today, getting scalped twice in quick succession.  Drogba's effort near the 20 minute mark is the first real chance of the game, testing Vander Sar with a stinger that the Dutchman is fortunate to steer just over the bar.

Midfield continues to be a pile of turnovers for both teams, although the Spanish referee seems to this point to be favoring United's more cosmopolitan style over Chelsea's thuggish efforts. Michael Carrick hits Ryan Giggs on a pinpoint pass well across the pitch, and the Welsh legend takes it in perfectly while sucking Bosingwa in, then rounds the Chelsea defender before perfectly pulling the ball back to a wide open Wayne Rooney for an easy goal, the game's first.  It's a wonderful start for the Reds, but there's a long way to go.

Ramires continues Chelsea's dirty brand of football by clammering into Rooney's ankle, and the Reds will be wise to remember the game a short month ago in which they took a Rooney-led 1-nil goal into the Bridge locker room only to end up the night as 2-1 losers.

Chelsea look a bit more inspired near the half hour mark, as Torres is again found in front of the net but can't control his side footed volley, and Drogba narrowly misses mis-directing a cross through the goal mouth. Wayne Rooney is a whirling dervish, virtually everywhere on the pitch, even playing defense in the box to snuff out a Chelsea threat.

Chelsea's play in the latter stages of the first half consists of pansy-like diving and flopping, the former by Torres and the latter by Drogba, although it's Yuri Zhirkov who finally tests the referee's conisiderable patience when he kicks Chicharito in the face with a very high foot to earn the game's first yellow.

Rooney almost picks out a wide open Chicharito near the interval, but the ball sails just over the young Mexican's head.  Although Chelsea's defense looks a bit wobbly as United pass it around and control the tempo, it's Chelsea who finish the half off on the stronger foot. Torres misses an empty net sitter on the stroke of halftime, the ball clanging into the post and rebounding directly to Frank Lampard, whose on-target shot is just cleared off the line by Patrice Evra.  United are extremely luck to escape the half one goal to the good, and the episode will give Sir Alex some good halftime fodder with which to work.

Rafael begins the second half laying on the pitch, coming off the worse in a collission with Didier Drogba, and his knee looks tender as he trots back onto the pitch. Ramires misses a wide open header and Nani is forced into action even earlier than anticipated when Rafael is stretchered off.  Three things happen next: Chelsea fans show their considerable class by booing Rafael as he's carried off, Valencia slots back into the fullback position, and the game continues, albeit with considerable stoppage time in store.

Rooney and Chicha play a neat one-two that ends up bulging the net behind Petr Cech, but the Little Pea is correctly adjudged to be offside -- Mike Dean take note. Drogba is just wide attempting to impersonate Rooney's bicycle kick goal against City, and the home side continues to search for an equalizer while Roman Abramovitch sits disconsolately in his box, completely ignoring the hottie sitting alongside him.

Droba looks frustrated as he beats Evra around the corner, the Frenchman slipping in the Ivorian's wake, only to have his cross sublimely snuffed out by the beast in the middle that is Nemanja Vidic.  Chelsea are steadyingly grabbing control of the match as the Reds look worryingly content to sit back and play cantennacio. A minute later I'm almost eating my words as United play a devastating counter, but Petr Cech gets a fingertip on the ball to steer it just wide of Hernandez's head with the goal agape.

Anelka and Malouda replace -- shockingly -- Drogba (instead of Torres) and Zhirkov as the game clock hits 70 minutes. Patrice Evra takes one in the face for the team and United continue their death-defying attempt to shut out Chelsea at home. Ancelloti's faith (or is it Abramovitch's?) in Torres is almost rewarded as Van der Sar proves his fingertips are at least as good as (if not better than) Cech's, just denying -- barely -- the Spaniard's header across goal.

Chicha makes way for Berba, with the latter brought in to hold the ball up as the clock ticks toward 80 minutes. Jon Obi Mikel replaces Bosingwa and the Spanish referee shows a bizarre yellow to Van der Sar for time wasting.  Chelsea earn a free kick from Rio's high foot, which takes out Mikel, but Lampard's effort is held securely by the Dutchman, who's once again proved his 40 year-old weight in gold tonight.

Ivanovich makes a nice move to beat Evra up the middle, but Chelsea is still unable to beat the Flying Dutchman and the effort is securely held. Manchester United sit back like a coiled cobra, waiting for Chelsea to commit too many men forward, and Nani almost makes the Blues pay on 88 minutes, but Cech is just able to gather the ball before the Portuguese winger can unload. Evra makes a great play at the other end, nicking the ball away from Anelka in a clash of heads, and preventing the Blues from scoring in the final minutes of regulation time. 

There are four added minutes -- Fergie time?! -- as the Chelsea fans despair at the home side's performance. Evra's extremely lucky to escape a penalty in the first minute of stoppage time as he clumsily takes down Ramires on the 18 yard box line. A minute later and Torres is adjudged to have dived in the box, and shown a yellow card for his theatrical efforts.  In truth, neither man should be on the pitch for Chelsea at this point, as the dive is Torres' second of the game, and although Ramires is once booked, he could have easily been booked again in the first half for his clumsy tackling.

United break a nine year duck at the Bridge, and return home with a significant -- but not dominant -- lead in the tie.  Game on at Old Trafford in six days time.

This is farlieonfootie for April 7.

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