Rooney strike leaves Chelsea's season hanging by a thread
Chelsea 0 Manchester United 1
Abused, charged, demonised, banned. It would be enough to finish most people off. Wayne Rooney? He appears to be thriving on it.
As the establishment has closed in on Rooney over the last five days so, at last, we are starting to see the best of him. Last night his goal put Manchester United on course for the treble. Today comes the announcement on his appeal against a two-match ban for naughty language. Rooney the rebel is playing like Rooney again.
He was the outstanding performer in a United team who are now favourites to win this Champions League quarter-final when it is concluded on Tuesday night at Old Trafford. They rode their luck last night, especially when the otherwise excellent Spanish referee missed a clear penalty when Patrice Evra brought down Ramires late on. But a familiar pattern is emerging – the pressure is on, and United are getting results.
If Rooney is told today that his two-game ban stands – and even if the Football Association chose to extend it – the mood last night was that this United team will kick down any number of doors to get to where they want to be. History is not on Chelsea's side: only twice in the Champions League's history have a team lost the first leg of a knockout tie at home and gone on to reach the next round.
As for Rooney, he has scored four goals since Saturday and 10 in his last 12 starts. If some would have him as a national pariah and poster boy for the decline of Britannia then it is a status he wears very lightly indeed. In fact, the way he slid on his knees in front of the Chelsea supporters last night, you might be moved to think he could not really care less.
This was not a United team that came to Stamford Bridge to keep it tight for the second leg. They played some of their best football of the season in the first half and, when Chelsea came back at them after the break, the central defensive pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand was the telling factor. Ferdinand had not played since 1 February but he performed like he had never been away.
The mediocrity that has blighted United this season was absent last night. Even Michael Carrick came out of his shell and out-shone Frank Lampard. The Chelsea man out-passed his United opponent by 62 to 34 but he did not strike a more telling ball than the one Carrick hit from right to left to Ryan Giggs on 24 minutes to make Rooney's goal.
It was that kind of moment that Chelsea could not conjure. They left cursing the Spanish referee, Alberto Mallenco, who blotted an excellent display by missing Evra's lunge on Ramires in time added on at the end of the game. But Chelsea's problems ran deeper than that. They did not create enough either in the 4-4-2 formation in which they started or the 4-3-3 to which they switched as their need became more desperate after the break.
There are big decisions facing Carlo Ancelotti come Tuesday, most notably whether Fernando Torres stays in his team for Old Trafford. He persisted with Torres to the end last night and was almost rewarded when the striker stretched Edwin van der Sar with a header in the 74th minute. But it was Didier Drogba who looked the more dangerous until he was substituted on 71 minutes.
Torres was booked at the end of the game for the second of two crass dives. In the first half, he had looked as sharp as he had since he joined the club but there was a whiff of desperation about him by the end of the game. Dropping him would be a career-changing decision for Ancelotti. But then going out at Old Trafford would be a career-changing defeat.
Before last night Ferguson had not won at Stamford Bridge since April 2002, including that most recent controversial defeat last month. The old boy got it right last night: the right formation, the right tactics, the right attitude.
United broke through on 24 minutes. There was that beauty of a ball from Carrick which Giggs pulled out of the air and he then beat Jose Bosingwa in one stupendously skilful movement. For an old man he sure can shift. Giggs went into the box, took one look up and put it on a plate for Rooney to sidefoot in.
Rooney had found himself the subject of two unforgiving challenges – the first from Michael Essien, the second from Ramires – before half-time. Harry Redknapp and Peter Crouch will have wished that they could have had a referee on Tuesday in Madrid with the outlook of Mallenco. He held off from booking anyone until Yuri Zhirkov raised a boot to Javier Hernandez on 35 minutes.
Torres had flickered before then but in the second half it was more about Drogba. It was his cross that Ramires steered wide. It was Drogba's overhead kick that just missed. And it was Drogba who bullied Evra, easing the United full-back out of the way on two occasions around the hour mark.
Yet when Ancelotti made the inevitable attacking change on 71 minutes – Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda on – it was Drogba who came off, not Torres. United had already lost Rafael da Silva to injury, which brought Nani into the game and meant the impressive Antonio Valencia was moved back to play at right-back.
Chelsea changed to 4-3-3 and Ferguson followed suit. He brought on Dimitar Berbatov, moved Rooney to the left and Nani to the right and matched Chelsea's system. The pressure became most intensive towards the end but aside from Torres's header and then Evra's challenge on Ramires, United held their opponents at arm's length.
The penalty appeal that was waved aside was a big call. There was a hint that Evra's challenge started outside the box but either way it was a foul. Ancelotti needs a bit of luck in that respect, but most of all he needs goals from Torres or someone else. Chelsea have to score at Old Trafford and there is an unmistakably daunting look about their opponents.
Ending the Bridge jinx
It was Manchester United's first victory at the Bridge for nine years. The last was a 3-0 league win on 20 April 2002. The goals then came from Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – and Denis Irwin was on the bench.
Man of the match: Rooney.
Match rating: 8/10.
Referee: A U Mallenco (Sp).
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