Let's face it, if Sir Alex Ferguson had to choose between a result against Chelsea on Saturday or one against Barcelona tomorrow it would be the latter every time. Which must have been the compromise he made with himself when he sketched out a team sheet on Saturday morning that did not include Cristiano Ronaldo, Patrice Evra and, to a lesser extent, Paul Scholes and Carlos Tevez.
It has been Ferguson's dream for years, the ability to roll out under-strength teams in certain games to do the business and give the A-listers a break. It has rarely worked on any level.
He has tried playing reserve sides in the FA Cup against Exeter City (2005) and Burton Albion (2006) and in the Carling Cup against Southend (2006) and it ended in two draws and a defeat. On Saturday he left out the best player in the League and the best left-back in the country and United faltered. The Manchester United manager did what he thought was right, and there were some very good reasons for resting Ronaldo, but it seemed destined to backfire.
What did Saturday's United team selection say to Chelsea? It said that United would try to win this game, or at the very least draw it, at less than their full capacity. Let's say that without Ronaldo and Evra, United are reduced to 80 per cent of their potency. Avram Grant, on the other hand, had no choice but to throw at United the very best that he had at his disposal to win the match.
Managers keep telling us that it is the tiny margins that make the big differences in games such as these. And a United team without Ronaldo and Evra seems like a significant enough margin to make a difference against an opponent like Chelsea.
Ferguson must have made the decision partly on the basis of how his United team – without Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo – disposed of Roma at Old Trafford this month. The comparisons are a little misleading, Roma missed a penalty early on that could have changed the game and, anyway, the Italians, dispatched 7-1 a year earlier, are still miles behind Chelsea. Let's not exaggerate. United playing Chelsea without two key players is by no means the football equivalent of asking Lewis Hamilton to win the Barcelona grand prix in a 1983 Austin Allegro but it definitely makes a difference.
Ferguson now contemplates his next two league games against West Ham and Wigan knowing he has to win both to be sure of the title on goal difference. It is not such a bad situation. If Rooney and Nemanja Vidic are fit to play against Barcelona, and then if United progress to the Champions League final, Ferguson will be justified in saying that his decision to rest Ronaldo was worth it; worth even losing to Chelsea. But the result demonstrated that no one, not even United, can rest key players in the big games.
Only Ferguson and his staff know when a player needs a break. They will have ProZone statistics detailing the exact distance covered by an individual, they see him training every day, but does Ronaldo really look tired? Rooney's goal notwithstanding it would seem that he was the stronger candidate for an afternoon off on Saturday.
Ronaldo's lacklustre evening at the Nou Camp on Wednesday must have convinced his manager that something had to give but generally the winger has looked immune to all the normal frailties – tiredness, injuries, indifferent form – that afflict most mortals.
The aftermath, in particular Ferguson's unholy attack on the refereeing performance, was more unedifying. The referee Alan Wiley awarded Chelsea a penalty for hand-ball against Michael Carrick because the ball was struck from far enough away from the midfielder for him to take evasive action. "But he's running towards his byline and his hand's down there [by his side]," protested Ferguson, seemingly suggesting that Carrick is physically incapable of moving his arms upwards or downwards while running. It is a defence of a kind, but it is not much of one.
He was also unhappy about his team's treatment from the referee in the game against Chelsea, as well as those against Middlesbrough and Portsmouth in the FA Cup; "diabolical" and "ridiculous" were a couple of the words that Ferguson used to describe the decisions.
He argued that Michael Ballack had wrestled Ronaldo to the ground in the box late in the game and, in the words of his assistant, Carlos Queiroz: "I think it is necessary to get a gun and shoot somebody in the box to make [sic] a penalty for our side." That one is actually a tried and tested line of Ferguson's but quoting his boss shows Queiroz is listening to him.
It could not hide the fact that United were outplayed by Chelsea for long periods of the game, something which Ferguson more or less admitted to later when he had calmed down. At times you could see Rooney indicating to Darren Fletcher to get the team moving quicker and the ball moving more fluently out of midfield and up to the lone striker. Fletcher was one of United's better performers although the same could not be said of Nani who had a poor game and demonstrated his worrying tendency not to look up for better options when running with the ball.
Perhaps most galling for United is that they lost to a Chelsea team who could hardly be said to be playing like kings. Grant is entitled to enjoy the moment but, all the same, there were some remarkable signs of the problems at the club. Ballack, who scored the first with a header from a Didier Drogba cross, got in an embarrassing argument with the Ivorian over a free-kick. Drogba complained to the bench where it was left to Steve Clarke to calm him down. Michael Essien summed it up best by pulling his shirt over his face in embarrassment.
Rooney's equaliser on 57 minutes came from Ricardo Carvalho's uncharacteristically poor back-pass, never the less the Englishman did brilliantly well to stay ahead of John Terry and score exactly the kind of chance he has missed too many times of late. Ronaldo was on for the late stages after Ballack scored the penalty Carrick conceded.
Ashley Cole and Andrei Shevchenko both cleared off the line. The Portuguese winger was evidently appeased by being told that he is being saved for bigger things against Barcelona and that is exactly how United looked on Saturday.
Goals: Ballack (45) 1-0; Rooney (57) 1-1; Ballack pen (86) 2-1.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira (Anelka, 66), Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Mikel; J Cole (Makelele, 87), Essien, Ballack, Kalou (Shevchenko, 81); Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Belletti.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic (Hargreaves, 14), Silvestre; Nani, Fletcher, Anderson (O'Shea 65), Carrick, Giggs; Rooney (Ronaldo, 63). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Tevez.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Ballack, Mikel, Drogba; Manchester United Brown, Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Hargreaves.
Man of the match: Ballack.
Remaining fixtures: Man Utd: 3 May West Ham (h); 11 May Wigan (a). Chelsea: 5 May Newcastle (a); 11 May Bolton (h).
Man for man marking
Will have been hot, in black and under all that headgear, but kept cool when United pressed. Presence spreads confidence. 7/10
Needlessly quick free-kick to Carvalho precipitated United's goal. Little impact in attack. Troubled by Wayne Rooney. 5
Calamitous, out-of-character back-pass to Rooney would have haunted him but for Ballack's winner. Otherwise commanding, as he has been all season. 6
No centre-forward to grapple with, but he coped well with United's movement. Emerged favourably from comparison of temperament with Rio Ferdinand. 7
Dealt easily with Nani's forays but rarely makes a difference offensively the way he did at Arsenal. Made 86th-minute goalline clearance from Ronaldo. 6
*JOHN OBI MIKEL
Dismissed at Old Trafford in Grant's first match, he made amends with a strong performance that will have reminded Ferguson why he also wanted him. 8
Solid in midfield without replicating Frank Lampard's driving runs. Made more of an attacking impact from full-back, his cross prompting the penalty. 8
Finishing season strongly. Thrived on the responsibility he bore in Lampard's absence. Good header for first goal, excellent penalty. Showed class and experience. 9
Bright start in which he bewildered Wes Brown but found Owen Hargreaves tougher opposition. Still developing as a player, and refreshingly direct. Withdrawn. 6
Not quite a vintage display, but much more like the player he can be. Very much up for it, he led the line well. Delicate cross to pick out Ballack for goal. 7
Began brightly with some nifty dribbling but too often ran into traffic. Hit the woodwork after 20 minutes. 6
NICOLAS ANELKA (for Ferreira, 66) Partnered Drogba in 4-4-2 formation. 4; ANDREI SHEVCHENKO (for Kalou, 81) Calm head at the end. Vital goalline clearance from Darren Fletcher. 7; CLAUDE MAKELELE (for J Cole, 87) On late to stiffen midfield.
*EDWIN VAN DER SAR
Handling was faultless. Good save from Didier Drogba's 72nd-minute free-kick. Unable to do anything about the goals. 7/10
Nearly embarrassed Van der Sar with wayward headed back-pass. More comfortable when in the centre. 6
The headlines said maturity had earned him England armband and the first 85 minutes followed the script. Then he lost his head. Fabio Capello will not be impressed. 6
Took an accidental knee to the face from Drogba after 14 minutes and had to be carried off. 5
Recalled and soon came to terms with Joe Cole's tricks. Unable to provide attacking impetus of Patrice Evra. 6
An afternoon that suggested he may yet establish himself. Only lost Ballack once, but he scored. 7
A typically understated display. Instinctively moved an arm towards Michael Essien's cross. 6
Patchy performance, at times dynamic, at others off the pace, which reflects his season. 5
Woeful. Direct running on the ball but he did not get his head up enough, or link with team-mates. 3
Gave Chelsea problems with his clever movement, often drifting to the left. Always a threat, he took his goal beautifully. 8
Lacked consistent impact. Created space for others but, in line with his recent dip in form, did too little on the ball himself. 5
OWEN HARGREAVES (for Vidic, 14) Looked a natural right-back. Suffocated Kalou. Uncharacteristic late loss of temper. 7; CRISTIANO RONALDO (for Rooney, 63) Quiet, but only denied by Ashley Cole's clearance. 5; JOHN O'SHEA (for Anderson, 65) Failed to stem blue tide. 5.
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