An enthralling Premier League campaign took another dramatic twist yesterday, not to anyone's ankle this time, but right at the top of the whirligig. Manchester United chose the wrong day to produce one of their worst hour's football of the season, much as Chelsea had done when sliding out of the Champions' League to Jose Mourinho's Internazionale.
Now, however, that loss looks a blessing in disguise. Carlo Ancelotti was able to enjoy a free week while United were exerting themselves against Bayern Munich, and will do so again during this week's second legs, concentrating exclusively on Saturday's FA Cup semi-final with Aston Villa.
Ancelotti used his time well, planning an attacking approach and a high tempo from the start. His midfield trio spread the play wide to effective wingers in Joe Cole and Florent Malouda, well supported by the full-backs Paulo Ferreira and Yuri Zhirkov. Frank Lampard and Deco were excellent, and once Cole's audacious flick had secured the lead, Deco in particular used his experience to slow the game by simply keeping possession. His team were helped in that ambition by United's careless tendency to give the ball back to them.
After a first half in which one low drive by Patrice Evra, comfortably held, was the champions' only shot on target, it is reasonable to assume that Sir Alex Ferguson's half-time chat was lively. It still took another quarter of an hour for United to exert serious pressure, but Chelsea withstood it before breaking out to snatch a second goal. This being the Premier League, there was controversy about it, Didier Drogba standing a yard offside before striking his shot.
Each side was also denied a convincing penalty claim and Chelsea protested that Federico Macheda used his hand in scrambling a goal to fan the embers of United's dying hopes. It was significant, however, that they needed Macheda to take a hand – or a chest, whichever it was – in the absence of Wayne Rooney.
Dimitar Berbatov's rather less dynamic qualities were insufficient here and it may be that Macheda will have to start alongside him at Blackburn next Sunday in the hope that United can stay in contention until their talisman and leading goalscorer returns, possibly for the huge date with Manchester City on Saturday week. What is undeniable is that they have now lost seven times this season, a handicap that no club has ever overcome to win the Premier League.
If Drogba is the one serious contender to Rooney as player of the year, Chelsea can still manage without him. After the 7-1 romp against Aston Villa last weekend, Ancelotti kept an unchanged team, knowing that Drogba had not trained fully but could be called upon when required. Sticking to Nicolas Anelka in attack and Mourinho's old 4-3-3 formation also allowed Cole (pictured right) the sort of opportunity he is desperate to grasp as the World Cup looms. In front of Fabio Capello's assistant Franco Baldini, he seized it, not least with his intervention in the 20th minute.
Entitled to be satisfied with their efforts up to that point, Chelsea then received some tangible reward as Malouda broke down the left, away from Antonio Valencia and past Darren Fletcher to the byline. His cutback was the type to threaten danger and Cole took advantage with an improvised flick that suggested any crisis of confidence is over. It was only his second Chelsea goal in his last 45 games.
Petr Cech's easy catch from Evra's drive was the only save by either goalkeeper until that point and the only other incidents before half-time were yellow cards (for Paul Scholes and Gary Neville) and controversies in the penalty area. Mike Dean had awarded 16 penalties in 24 games before yesterday, by far the highest total of any Premier League referee; Blackburn's Martin Olsson having claimed that he used that knowledge in taking a dive against Burnley to win a decision.
South Korea's Park Ji-Sung is not cut from the same shabby cloth, but he too may have exaggerated his fall after Zhirkov caught his leg inside the area. Dean was unmoved and remained so after an even more blatant foul by Neville, charging Anelka in the chest and down to the ground.
Chastened or not by Ferguson's talking-to, United could still have fallen further behind two minutes into the second half. Cole's fine pass put in Ferreira, who could not decide whether to shoot or cross and produced a feeble combination of the two options.
At last, however, the home side began to press and then to threaten. Park was off balance as he shot into the Stretford End, Berbatov headed wide and then too high, and it was now Chelsea names – Deco's and Cole's – being noted by the referee.
Drogba and Macheda were among the clutch of substitutes introduced and each had a significant part to play. In the 78th minute Salomon Kalou, another replacement, played in Drogba, who deceived the referee's assistant with his run and then Edwin van der Sar with his shot. Two minutes later another pair of fresh legs, these belonging to United's Nani, sped down the left for a cross that Cech could only push into the body of Macheda, Chelsea appealing in vain that it was a hand that propelled the ball over the line.
A frantic finish was thus guaranteed but Berbatov's hooked shot at Cech was the nearest thing to one of United's famous late goals. Once again they had ended a Champions' League week in defeat and this may prove the most costly of all.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Malouda
Match rating: 6/10
MAN FOR MAN MARKING...
Edwin van der Sar 6/10
Had little chance with either goal – Cole's backheel or Drogba's blast – and although he was not called upon to perform heroics the United goalkeeper always seemed in the greater danger.
Gary Neville 5/10
United's right flank had been given a severe examination by Bayen Munich's Franck Ribéry in midweek and received another stiff test yesterday as Malouda several times threatened to run amok. However, when he was able to venture forward Neville's crosses promised a reward that never came.
Rio Ferdinand 6/10
If there was relief that Drogba was only on the substitutes' bench, United's central defenders had little time to enjoy it as they were forced on to the back foot. But Terry's England partner managed to keep Anelka stifled in the central areas.
Nemanja Vidic 5/10
Has still not recovered his impregnable aura of last season. The centre-back never looked entirely at ease against the speed of Chelsea's attacks, or indeed their intensity in the first half, and questions must remain about his level of performance in the very biggest contests.
Patrice Evra 7/10
The United left-back's contest with the Blues' right flank was one of the most finely balanced on the pitch. His pace and eagerness to attack gave Ferreira some difficult moments, conversely the Chelsea man forged forward to fashion himself one of the best chances of the match.
Antonio Valencia 5/10
A huge disappointment for United fans must have been the apparent ease with which Zhirkov got the measure of the right-wing threat. Staunching the supply of tantalising crosses from United's right gave Chelsea a sense of safety rarely enjoyed at Old Trafford.
Darren Fletcher 6/10
After a very ordinary first half, the Scottish midfielder played further upfield and got in more of the tigerish tackles that his game is founded on. However, despite the extra energy expended, he was still unable to create real danger with the vision that has been a hallmark of his improved form.
Paul Scholes 5/10
By his very high standards the midfielder gave a very pale imitation of his best performances. Too many misplaced passes were symptomatic of this off day, as were wild tackles on Deco and Malouda which saw him booked. Later substituted for Nani.
Park Ji-sung 6/10
Although he ran with his customary enthusiasm, the South Korean caused little real peril to the Chelsea defence. He seemed adrift in no man's land starting in an advanced role just behind Berbatov, but had difficulty in imposing himself on the play. Replaced by Macheda.
Ryan Giggs 6/10
In common with two others of the famous generation of United youth players who have served the club so well, did not perform to his excellent best, unable to get a foothold in the play during the first half and drifted in and out of the match thereafter.
Dimitar Berbatov 5/10
In the absence of Wayne Rooney, the Bulgarian led the line with a typical languid, insouciant air, which was not what was required. Denied by Lampard when about to shoot, and with that his best chance was gone.
Federico Macheda on for Park (71 minutes) the big striker scrambled in United's goal but did little else to bring Sir Alex Ferguson comfort. Nani on for Scholes (71 minutes) but unable to find a penetrating run to trouble the visitors. Darron Gibson on for Fletcher (86 minutes).
Petr Cech 6/10
Had little to do in the first half other than admire the control exerted by the Blues on an out-thought and out-fought United. In the second an ineffective flap at a cross from the left went unpunished, but gave the opposition hope. Another clearance was smuggled in by Macheda's arm for United's goal.
Paulo Ferreira 7/10
Started brightly with a run and cross and had a good chance in the second but shot wide. Defensively, one early Berbatov run at Chelsea's right flank suggested vulnerability, but thereafter controlled his flank well.
The unsung component of the Blues' rearguard had a quietly solid first half in which he was rarely called on, so firm was his side's control. In the second, when under greater threat, the centre-back was again an effective bulwark and hardly put a foot wrong.
John Terry 7/10
That blip in form now behind him, the club captain was indomitable. His only first-half misjudgement was to concede a foul on Berbatov in the final seconds for a free-kick which came to nothing. Late on, stood his ground as firmly as ever and marshalled a back four under increasing threat.
Yuri Zhirkov 7/10
Got away with a foul on Park on the edge of the penalty area, but apart from that blemish the left-back was never really troubled, kept the normally dangerous wing play of Valencia under a tight rein for 90 minutes and was lively enough to support the attack.
John Obi Mikel 7/10
The holding midfielder protected his back four diligently, urgently winning the ball back from the opposition's lacklustre midfield. Perhaps does not yet have the authority of a Claude Makelele in the role, but in this match did not disappoint and used the ball with good sense.
Together with Cole, the Portuguese midfielder was a constant irritant to the Reds defence, rarely misplaced a pass and had an eye for the penetrative ball that would unpick the United backline. They never got close to him, as evinced by Scholes' rash foul on him.
Frank Lampard 7/10
Did not play quite as far forward as usual, or make those trademark runs into the opposition penalty area, with only one notable shot late in the second half. But played his part in a midfield that was dominant in the first half, defiant in the second.
Joe Cole 7/10
Has not always had the confidence of his manager Carlo Ancelotti, but given the nod yesterday the England midfielder came up with a deft backheel for the important first goal. Often threatened danger when drifting to the right or playing just behind Anelka. Tired in the second half; replaced by Kalou.
Nicolas Anelka 7/10
Preferred to Drogba as leader of the Blues attack, the French striker worked hard for the team without finding a goal opportunity for himself. Replaced by Drogba, who, of course, soon scored Chelsea's second goal.
Florent Malouda 8/10
Always presented a problem to Neville and United's right flank with his searing pace and strong determination not to be knocked off the ball, as seen by his run and cross to set up Cole's opener.
Didier Drogba on for Anelka (69 minutes) and, watched by the new Ivory Coast manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, scored an emphatic, if offside, winner. Salomon Kalou on for Cole (72 minutes) as Chelsea tried to stem the Reds' recovery. Michael Ballack replaced Deco (80 minutes) as the Blues saw the match out.
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