|photo by Lincolnian (Brian) - BUSY||via PhotoRee|
Sir Alex makes three changes to the side that lost to Arsenal last weekend, including John O’Shea in for an injured Patrice Evra, Fabio slotting in to right back to replace his brother Rafael, and Park Ji-Sung relegating Nani to the bench. Chelsea go with largely the same side that has terrorized United in the past, their front line composed of Drogba, Malouda and Kalou, and David Luiz, no longer cup tied, in central defense. Worryingly for United, Fernando Torres can’t crack the Blues’ starting lineup and remains on the Chelsea bench. It’s an all or nothing kind of day, particularly for Chelsea, who need a win just to prolong the season.
Somewhat unbelievably, the game starts with a shocker, Chicharito sending David Luiz back to remedial defending school and opening the scoring for the home team inside of 40 seconds. The little Mexican is picked out shoulder to shoulder with Chelsea’s newest defender, found on a perfect ball from Park, and there’s little work to do to put the ball past a stunned Petr Cech as United grab a shockingly easy and early goal. The goal works front to back, Rio to Carrick, Carrick to Park, and Park to Hernandez as the Chelsea defense looks about as easy as a cheap hooker on a the day of navy shore leave. Cue joyous hugging on the United sideline with Fergie reaching over for Mike Phelan and Berba and Ando celebrating, and Carlo Ancelloti sending Alex to the warm-up line for Luiz, whose pride seems to be the biggest injury sustained on the play.
United go all out on attack, looking to kill the game off early, with waves of intent being shown by Rooney, Valencia and Park in particular. Rooney is almost on target with a 35 yard laser that would have rivaled his City goal of one of the season’s best strikes, but a stretching Cech is just up to the challenge, and tips it wide. Park is everywhere in the match’s first 10 minutes, the Korean playing as if trying to erase the bad taste left from last week’s game at the Emirates. Chicharito almost doubles the lead on 10 minutes, a stretching Luiz just getting an unspotted foot on a through ball to Hernandez, throwing off the Mexican’s timing by a mere milisecond. On fifteen minutes it’s Rooney's turn to nearly double the lead, capping off a flowing move begun once again by Park with Valencia picking out the striker, who is not closed down properly by Chelsea.
Chelsea finally register a shot near 20 minutes, with Drogba’s head causing the United ‘keeper to spill the rebound. Van der Sar regains his footing, though, and snuffs the threat out shortly thereafter. At the other end, only referee Howard Webb’s leniency keeps a once-booked Branislav Ivanovic in the game when he repeatedly fouls Rooney. The resulting rash of free kicks and corners ends in more Chelsea agony, with the skipper, Nemanja Vidic, finally allowing Old Trafford to reach full throat as the scoreboard shows a 2-nil lead to the homeside. No one can argue that it’s not fully deserved on the run of play, and the lead is shocking only in how quick it’s been achieved: before the clock hits 23 minutes. Vidic catches Ashley Cole standing flat-footed as he begins his run, and the Serbian is picked out after a short corner by – who else? – Ryan Giggs. Cue pandemonium at the Theatre of Dreams.
United are almost caught out celebrating the newfound lead, Kalou’s header tipped just up and out of the way, but United can only exhale when Ivanovic’s scissor kick finds the side of the net. Things get a bit tense as Drogba stands over the ball 25-yards out for a pending free kick, but the half hour mark still finds the score unchanged at 2-nil. A minute later and the Ivorian is wide on another free kick from the same distance, this time with the Dutchman rooted to the spot and commanding the ball to stay outside the net. Chelsea have played their way back into the contest, although it’s two goals too late from their point of view, and Carlo can only shake his head in disgust from his sideline seat. As if verbalizing Ancelloti’s wish, Rooney lays out Luiz, who seems to be involved in almost all facets of the game, and picks up a card for his efforts.
Just before halftime and referee Webb is front and center in the action for the first time all day, once again allowing Ivanovic to stay only due to the referee’s good graces. Although the Chelsea defender has previously been given his final warning, Webb allows him just one more when he deliberately tramples on Rooney’s foot. As the teams leave for the halftime break it’s United moving in an upbeat manner, and Chelsea planning two changes. One Brazilian replaces another, with Alex replacing Luiz – who’s been given the hook rather than being injured -- and Ramires replacing Mikel to bolster the midfield, which has been dominated by the Reds. Johnny Evans comes on for O’Shea for United, with the Irishman likely having picked up a knock during the first 45 minutes of action.
United sit back to open the half, inviting Chelsea pressure. Both Webb and his linesman Mike Mullarkey miss an obvious handball on Frank Lampard on 53 minutes, the Englishman brought to the ground before Valencia’s cross finds his hand in an unnatural position. At the other end, Kalou’s ridiculous flop attempt in the box is not even considered by Webb, who tells the Ivorian to get up and on with it. With a half hour left in the action, Chelsea are starting to show their lack of offensive ideas and United are looking to see out the game’s last 30 minutes. Ancelloti plays the obvious last die, and rolls Fernando Torres into the action to replace Solomon Kalou.
Webb refuses to award Antonio Valencia a penalty on 65 minutes, having had a good view of the play and refusing to point to the spot, despite John Terry catching none of the ball and all of the Ecuadorian’s valuable ankle. The game is stretched, with Chelsea creating a chance or two, although the best coming off a ball which Drogba handled in the box. Chelsea grab a goal back to keep the Blues’ hopes alive, if briefly, as Lampard sidefoots an effort into the United goal with the clock nearing 70 minutes. It was Vidic who kept the Englishman onside, and Sir Alex is forced up off his seat to ask his side to bear down. They almost do that a minute later, as Rooney’s effort is cleared off the line by Alex, with Cech well out of position.
It’s all gone quiet at Old Trafford, with the crowd now realizing they’re in for an uncomfortable final 20 minutes rather than a walk in the park. The team look slightly skittish for the first time all day, as if the enormity of what they’re trying to do has suddenly dawned on them. United are guilty of a few nervy clearances and the defense is suddenly problematic, as Ferdinand, Fabio and Evans are all knocked to the ground at the same time. Two defenders are sent to the sideline as Ivanovic sends a long throw in, and it’s only when Howard Webb whistles a foul on Alex that the threat passes with a little more than ten minutes left in the game.
Rooney misses three opportunities to seal the game off, pulling the ball just wide on the first, refusing to pull the trigger with Cech out of goal on the second, and seeing his ball tipped just over the bar by Alex on the third. Hearts in throat, the crowd cheers the team into the final five minutes of regulation time. Chicharito misses yet another chance to kill the game off, picked out by Valencia with no one between him and the goal. At the other end, Fernando Torres pulls it wide of the mark with a little over three minutes left, and the opportunity prompts Sir Alex to insert a fourth central defender into the back four, with Chris Smalling replacing Fabio.
Hernandez fluffs his lines once more with the game ticking down, as Giggs finds him alone inside the box. All of the misses conspire to make the ending extremely nervous – much more so than it should be given the Reds’ total dominance on the afternoon – and the crowd greets the news of four extra minutes like the especially unwelcome piece of information it is. Van der Sar wipes his brow as a last gasp Essien shot flies over the bar, and the celebration can finally begin in earnest.
It’s the fourth victory in five tries for Sir Alex’s men over Chelsea this season, and the dominance includes victories in the Community Shield, the Champions League, and now the Premier League. It doesn’t get any sweeter than this, knocking off both Chelsea and Liverpool – right off their feckin’ perch -- and United once again prove that they’re not arrogant, just better than Chelsea.
This is an ecstatic farlieonfootie for May 9.