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Deco struggles to shine in Blues' rough diamond

The role at the front of Chelsea's now customary midfield diamond should, in theory, be the one they all want to play. Everyone else does the donkey work and you get to do all the fancy stuff and grab the glory.

It hasn't quite worked out like that since Carlo Ancelotti, in the summer, changed the formation that had pretty much been the same since Jose Mourinho led the club to back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.

As Sir Alex Ferguson delightedly pointed out in the build-up to this vital contest, Ancelotti has tried half his midfield in the role at some time or other this season but as yet no one has made the place his own. Ferguson suggested they lacked a world beater, such as Kaka, to really make the Chelsea midfield work like clockwork.

Ancelotti opted for the inconsistent but potentially brilliant Deco for the visit of the reigning champions, instead of Joe Cole, whose present on his 28th birthday was a place on the bench. The pair have been taking it in turns to play in recent weeks, after Cole's return to full fitness after eight months out with a cruciate ligament injury. Cole had started in midweek in the 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid but was withdrawn after an hour after failing to make much impression.

But this was one day it would not have been about taking turns. Ancelotti was picking his best team for the biggest game of the season so far.

Supported by a powerhouse midfield of Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard, the stage was set for Deco to display the full array of his talents. But it was not to be.

Ferguson sent his side out with a five-man midfield, to counteract Chelsea's perceived strength in the middle of the park. Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick acted as twin protectors of a makeshift defence missing the commanding presence of both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The pair were superb for most of the match, denying Deco any kind of breathing space.

Deco did little, apart from whipping in a cross that was a little too far behind Ballack. Instead of Deco, it was Anelka who caught the eye as Chelsea's playmaker as he dropped deep, sprinted wide, and generally probed the United rearguard without truly prising it open.

Then, after 62 minutes, Ancelotti gave Cole his chance and his 250th appearance as a Chelsea player. Cole however found it no easier than Deco as United's smothering tactics continued to hold sway. Cole's finest moment, under the gaze of England manager Fabio Capello, came late in the game shortly after Chelsea had taken the lead, when he slipped a cagey pass to Anelka and the Frenchman's low cross was held by Edwin van der Sar.

Ultimately it was a day when Chelsea's outstanding defence won the plaudits. The Blues have now gone 14 and a half hours since they last conceded here. Yet the role behind the strikers remains one of the few places in the Chelsea team still up for grabs.

Now Fifa's transfer ban has been lifted temporarily, Ancelotti has the option to strengthen in January. Deco and Cole have until then to convince the Chelsea manager they can provide the creative inspiration in games such as this, when space is of the essence.