Match Report: Mark Clattenburg provides a cruel twist to pulsating encounter between Chelsea and Manchester United
Chelsea 2 Manchester United 3: Dismissal of Fernando Torres allows United to steal a march in title race before post-match abuse row leaves a stain
As the extra stewards were deployed around the mouth of the tunnel and the home crowd focused their outrage exclusively on the man in black, Mark Clattenburg will have had that growing sense of dread that in modern football's high court of HD super slo-mo replays, he had been found guilty of error.
By the end of the night, Clattenburg was facing the kind of scandal that could potentially end his career. The question of what he may or may not have said to John Obi Mikel yesterday promises to be the next major storm of English football, just days after the game thought it had put the last one to bed at last.
In the meantime, two definitive decisions are already in on Clattenburg’s performance yesterday: wrong to send off Fernando Torres and wrong to allow Javier Hernandez’s offside winner to stand. It was Mr Muddle day for some of the country’s leading referees at Goodison Park as well as Stamford Bridge, although it should be said this is a bloody hard job they do.
But great games – and yesterday's at Stamford Bridge was a great game – deserve exacting officials, and all the drama and controversy cannot compensate for teams suffering from bad decisions. Chelsea were down to 10 men already, with the dismissal of Branislav Ivanovic, when Torres was sent off for a ludicrous second yellow card. They may well have conceded a third goal anyway, but they deserved to do so with 10 men on the pitch, not nine.
The beauty of this game before the second red card for Chelsea was that it was so finely balanced. To start: a frantic break-out by Manchester United down Chelsea's vulnerable left flank and two goals within 12 minutes. To follow: an accomplished fightback led, in the main, by the triumvirate of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, who have transformed the way Chelsea chase games.
As Roberto Di Matteo patched up and reorganised his team after first Ivanovic and then Torres's red cards, all three of those aforementioned Chelsea attackers were substituted. A team that had gone through United with a needle precision either side of half-time were forced, in their last desperate moments, to push David Luiz into attack and hit a long hopeful free-kick to the edge of United's area.
A pity. A pity that we could not see them fight it out to the very end without such a significant discrepancy in numbers. Ivanovic deserved to go for a denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity by clipping Ashley Young on 63 minutes. But Torres (right) was wrongly dismissed for a second yellow card for what Clattenburg decided was a dive even though Torres's challenger, Jonny Evans, clearly made contact.
The Chelsea striker had been booked for a high boot on Tom Cleverley just before half-time and he was about to be substituted by Di Matteo when he ran on goal with 68 minutes played. The Chelsea striker had been comprehensively outshone by his opposite number Robin van Persie but he did not deserve this degree of misfortune.
As for United, they got the rub of the green but they were particularly good in the first half. First Wayne Rooney and Young opened up Chelsea's left flank – where the hell was Ashley Cole? – to cross to Van Persie, whose shot hit the post and cannoned in off Luiz. Then Antonio Valencia broke again down the same wing, picking out Van Persie to score with Gary Cahill dithering.
At that point it seemed like Ferguson's team had reasserted their authority over the league leaders, but United could not handle Chelsea's resurgence. In that period before half-time, the intricacy of Mata, Hazard and Oscar prevailed and David De Gea kept his side in it with a save from Torres's header at the back post. The Chelsea goal, when it arrived on 43 minutes, was well overdue. Rooney was drawn into a needless foul on Hazard around the edge of the area and Mata scored his seventh goal of the season from the resultant free-kick with the confidence of a man who is one of the league's in-form players.
The equaliser came on 53 minutes, improvised beautifully by Mata and Oscar. First Mata managed to coax a long ball from Oscar out of the air and when the Brazilian retrieved Mata's cross, Ramires headed in the second ball delivered into the box. Providing a wobbly defence could keep Van Persie quiet, the game was there for Chelsea to win.
Van Persie and Luiz are both masterful exponents of the accidental elbow and sought one another out on the quiet without ever having the kind of silly nose-to-nose that draws the referee's attention. Neither was even booked.
The game ran away from Chelsea with Ivanovic's sending off and then Torres's dismissal, until they were left with none of the shape or the poise that they had in their best periods. On 73 minutes, Van Persie's shot was pushed on to the post by Petr Cech and the goalkeeper then scrambled back to scoop it out. Rafael returned the ball into the area where Hernandez finished beautifully.
He was offside, though. In fact, Hernandez was even ahead of Cech. His celebrations in front of the Matthew Harding stand provoked a barrage of coins and goodness-knows what else to be thrown on to the pitch and a steward went down. Chelsea later claimed that he had slipped over and hurt his knee.
United won it and they have closed the gap to Chelsea to a single point at the top of the Premier League yet they could hardly say they quelled the new team emerging at Stamford Bridge without some good fortune. United return on Wednesday for the League Cup but come 4 May when they reconvene in the league at Old Trafford, one would expect Chelsea still to be very much in it.
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