It has been a decade since Manchester United last won at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League – a 3-0 win in April 2002, with Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring the goals. During the intervening years Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, and many others, ran foul of officialdom in west London. The Stamford Bridge crowd may be as plastic as it comes, but Roman Abramovich has rarely had cause to complain about a referee’s performance when United comes to town.
Amusing then that such a storm should brew after Ferguson’s men benefited from marginal calls at the Bridge to secure three vital points in a dramatic fixture on Sunday afternoon. United won 3-2 following Javier Hernández’ late winner, but the scoreline tells just part of the story in which the Reds very nearly threw away a two goal lead.
But the game, as is now customary in the Premier League, almost becomes a secondary consideration amid the “narratives related to it, a screen on which to project neuroses and prejudice,” as one writer put it.
Fernando Torres’ yellow card for ‘diving’ under Jonny Evans’ challenge, and Hernandez’ marginally offside winner could have gone either way. But Chelsea’s manager Roberto Di Matteo can have no complaints about Branislav Ivanovic’s red for taking out Ashley Young, nor the fortune that saw Torres’ get away with a wildly dangerous chest-high challenge on Tom Cleverley just after half-time.
“Surely, when he’s going to watch the images he’s going to realise that he made big mistakes,” said Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo of referee Mark Clattenburg’s performance.
“It is a shame a game like this had to be decided in that manner by officials. It always seems to be in favour of the opposition.”
The final comment, one presumes, was appended without hint of irony from the 42-year-old Italian. But west London complaints aside, United’s third win of the week brings a substantial boost to those at Old Trafford. Yet another defeat at Stamford Bridge would have left the Reds seven behind Chelsea, and three behind Manchester City, with a quarter of the season complete.
As it stands there is now but a point between the country’s three leading teams, with United hosting Arsenal at Old Trafford in the Premier League next weekend. None of the three is faultless though, leading to the conclusion that there will be more than one twist in the months to come.
Still, United will pay little attention to Chelsea’s cries of foul; not with a title to claw back from Eastlands.
“We don’t care. We win, we have the three points,” added Hernández of the ‘controversial’ win.
“That was the only thing we had on our mind. Probably for some people it was very controversial, for other people not. For us, we won the three points and it is very difficult to come here to Stamford Bridge and take the three points, and we’re very lucky and happy with that.”
But Ferguson will once again be concerned with United’s defending at the Bridge, especially given the extent to which his men crumbled under Chelsea’s pressure either side of half-time. So open was the Reds’ central midfield all afternoon that at one point Ferguson ended the pretense altogether and paired Carrick with Wayne Rooney.
No combination it seems offers Ferguson’s back-four any protection, with United having conceded twice for the third time in seven days. Indeed, the Reds have shipped 13 in nine Premier League matches do date. Liverpool, in 12th, has conceded 14.
It is tempting to suggest that United’s fortune, such as it was at Stamford Bridge, will not hold indefinitely, while Ferguson’s side will certainly persist in conceding goals unless something changes. Whether the Reds’ adaptation is tactical, technical, or in personnel – whatever the solution to United’s faults it is a truism that the most successful sides rarely concede at will.
Ferguson suffered a similar dilemma last season after City ran riot at Old Trafford. United tightened up and went on a run of narrow victories that set the stage for a more closely run title race that many believed possible. This season, United’s open play has brought far more entertainment, but the genuine question on offer is whether Ferguson believes the attack-at-all-costs policy is one that can bring the title back to Old Trafford next May.
For now, the Scot will enjoy a rare victory in Abramovich’s lair. After all, it comes for too infrequently for comfort. In 26 visits to the Bridge, Ferguson’s side has emerged victorious on just seven occasions, including Sunday.
The victory also reward for Ferguson’s bold team selection and attacking philosophy – one which has not always been prevalent in United’s biggest matches over the past two years.
“It’s 10 years since we won here [in the Premier League],” Sir Alex told Sky Sports in the aftermath.
“I said before the game that we’ve had some shocking decisions down here. It’s very difficult to come here and get all the decisions as it’s a very difficult place. The sending off of the right-back was the turning point for us. I think we would have won it from that point. I put Chicharito on and he got the winning goal as I think the momentum was with us then.”
Five victories on the spin since Tottenham Hotspur won at Old Trafford in September, no matter the defensive record, is another kind of momentum too. With qualification from the Champions League almost ensured, Ferguson’s men have little distraction this side of Christmas, and a series of eminently winnable games before the derby with City on 9 December.
That match will, of course, be another genuine test, and United supporters will be grateful for another modicum of good fortune in just over five week’s time.