If they thought it could not get any worse, they were mistaken. After the humiliation that was Newcastle and Southampton, and the bitter European failure against Fenerbahce, Manchester United yesterday plunged deeper into the abyss when they lost their first Premiership match at home for two years. Outsmarted by a Chelsea team whose performance was an object lesson in strategy, United were left to contemplate a season which, in less than a fortnight, has fallen apart at the seams.
A run of four defeats in five matches - that Coca-Cola Cup win over Swindon Town looks quite an achievement now - has thrown a huge shadow across United both at home and in Europe. Now it is not a question of which has priority. Before they can start to think of titles or trophies anywhere, they simply have to find a way to stop losing.
Above all, this is a crisis of confidence, as Alex Ferguson, United's manager, admitted afterwards. In that respect, he said: "We're no different from any other team." But Ferguson himself is having a bad trot tactically, and his redeployment of front-men for this match proved no more effective than it had been in the Champions' League last Wednesday. Poor defending, not least from a goalkeeper whose air of invincibility is dissipating fast, only compounded United's problems.
Ferguson said beforehand that he thought Chelsea's attacking inclinations might play into United's hands. He read that quite wrongly. Ruud Gullit sent out a team that defended superbly, was shrewder in midfield, and supported each other valiantly going forward. Goals in each half, by Michael Duberry and Gianluca Vialli, were their reward, and although United struck back late on through the substitute Karel Poborsky and might even have equalised, anything other than a Chelsea victory would have been wholly misleading. By replacing Poborsky and Jordi Cruyff with Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ferguson committed United to advancing across a narrow front, and apart from a couple of scares early on when Solskjaer nearly got through, the almost obligatory pass over the top seemed either to result in an offside or be admirably dealt with by a three-man Chelsea defence in which the Frenchman Franck Leboeuf was outstanding.
For his illustrious compatriot in the opposite ranks, it was another day of notable underachievement. Eric Cantona began well, but his contribution gradually dwindled to almost nothing, and, as Ferguson said, it summed it up for United when, with three minutes left, Cantona inadvertently got in the way of what looked a goal-bound header by Roy Keane.
It was a missed chance by Keane after 28 minutes that presaged United's downfall. Rising unmarked to meet David Beckham's free-kick by the right- hand byline he got underneath a header which probably only needed to be on target to produce a goal. But instead of being ahead, United were within three minutes chasing the game after demonstrating their equal shortcomings in defending a setpiece. Dennis Wise swung over a corner from the right and Duberry, without a United man near him, leapt to send a downward header into the corner of the net with Peter Schmeichel rooted to his goal-line. The tension in the crowd was ratcheted up, and little United did could ease it as Wise and Craig Burley gained superiority over Keane and Nicky Butt, and the movement of Mark Hughes and Vialli kept the United defence stretched.
Chelsea's second goal came right on the hour. Leboeuf sent a long pass forward, and United moved up in expectation of an offside flag. It never came. Nor, as he might have been expected to, did Schmeichel and Vialli collected the ball, took it into the area and scored with almost embarrassing ease.
Poborsky's reply - a shot from just outside the area that deflected off David May - gave United some cause for hope but in truth their attempt to salvage the situation lacked conviction.
"Chelsea deserved to win, no question of that," Ferguson said. "They played with a lot of confidence and a lot of experience. The two bad goals we let in were something we'll have to address. If you're defending properly it gives you a base. You can do something about the game. That wasn't acceptable in terms of the defending today. I thought we tried really hard and looked like a team that needed a goal but we didn't deserve to win."
It would have been good to hear Gullit's assessment of the match, but catching a plane back to London was more of a priority than meeting the Press. In a way, though, his team had done all the talking for him.
Ten-year hitch, page 30
The top six
P W D L F A Pts
Arsenal 12 7 4 1 24 10 25
Newcastle 11 8 0 3 20 12 24
Liverpool 10 7 2 1 20 8 23
Wimbledon 12 7 2 3 22 13 23
Chelsea 12 6 4 2 21 17 22
Man Utd 12 5 4 3 23 19 19
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