James Lawton: Carrick's revival opens up world of possibilities for Ferguson

Most reassuring, though, was the fact that Rooney remained wedded to his work rather than anger

Manchester United may, with a little bit of help from a Spanish referee, have regained the feeling they are doing more than merely hanging on to an elaborate and unlikely dream.

They survived penalty appeals which recalled the time when Chelsea were last derailed in the Champions League by eccentric refereeing, but the truth was that if Chelsea had some reason to complain about one last decision their gravest criticism should surely have been directed at themselves.

For most of the game United seemed more aware of what they were trying to do and they had the additional encouragement of performances of genuine stature from Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick.

The result is that they have made one large stride into the semi-finals and must now believe they have found the kind of confidence and momentum that has been elusive for so much of a remarkable season.

Their best hopes now will be refuelled whenever they recall the detail of last night's vital goal fashioned by Carrick and Ryan Giggs and put away with the increasingly sure finishing touch of Rooney.

It would have been a brilliant goal in any circumstances but for the exultant Sir Alex Ferguson it seemed to be one he was ready to weigh in gold.

This was understandable enough because this was the kind of strike United are supposed to create at a time when they are still in position to match their supreme achievement of the 1999 treble. It was conceived and executed on the grand scale so it required them to step outside the parameters of a scrabbling campaign to retrieve some of the best of themselves.

Carrick, who for so long has been a parody of the player who briefly suggested he might become the most influential player of the 2008-09 season before disappearing without trace in the Champions League final in Rome, did precisely this when he opened up the possibilities with a sweeping cross ball to the feet of Giggs. These are, of course, some feet controlled by some considerable nerve. Giggs controlled the ball and moved it to Rooney quite serenely, who, as he did at Upton Park last weekend, made scoring look the simplest of chores.

Again he ran at the camera, but this time without the impression that he was auditioning for a remake of the The Exorcist.

Cue Ferguson bliss – an early away goal, a Rooney in control of himself and playing with that acute sense of space and time which not so long ago made some of us believe he could be one of the great figures of the last World Cup, and the revival of Carrick as a player of both skill and presence.

It was a sense of well-being that would have to be fiercely protected, and just how desperately became obvious just before half-time when Drogba hit a post and Patrice Evra was required to clear off the line from Frank Lampard.

Chelsea moved the pressure up still another notch in the second half when Carlo Ancelotti finally lost patience with the pairing of Drogba and Fernando Torres, sending on Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda in place of Drogba and a Yuri Zhirkov who had failed to bring a killing edge to some eye-catching work. Torres, despite just a couple of fleeting interventions, stayed on the field, £50m of latent destruction that is threatening to impinge on what his purchaser Roman Abramovich must be beginning to see as an eternity.

For Ferguson, though, there was relief in the fact his team kept a good shape and resolution and Rio Ferdinand's ability to step back into football after the most nagging of injuries and still look more like one of the world's best defender than a piece of chipped china.

Most reassuring of all, though, was the fact that Rooney remained firmly wedded to his work rather than his anger and Carrick's old gravitas showed signs of being on something more than a brief visit.

It meant that United, fortified by their away goal, could ride the late alarm that blared when Evra brought down Ramires inside the box and without getting close to the ball, and Torres committed a flagrant dive, for which he was booked.

Chelsea, especially skipper John Terry, were ablaze with indignation, so much so that Ancelotti went on the field at the end to make sure his players did not invade too strenuously the space of Spanish referee Alberto Mallenco. However, they had had their chances and had run into a somewhat discouraging reality.

It was that United may be doing a little more than lurching from one piece of resilience to another. There were signs, indeed, of a serious team who were at last beginning to play – and not at all badly.

James Lawton wins sports journalist of the year

The Independent's chief sports writer James Lawton has been crowned Sports Journalist of the Year at the prestigious British Press Awards.

Lawton picked up the award at the Savoy Hotel in London on Tuesday night in a hotly contested category.

Lawton's writing was highly praised by the judges, who said that he "has been producing great journalism for decades and that his work goes from strength to strength". Lawton received his award from the Sky news reader Anna Botting.

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