Stunning comeback masks opportunity lost
For Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas Sunday’s draw with Manchester United must feel like a crushing defeat. The hosts, three goals to the good 10 minutes into the second half, were cruising to victory only for United’s stunning comeback to be completed by Javier Hernández with seven minutes to go. The high in visitors’ dressing room, by contrast to Chelsea’s, will take some time to die down. Yet, come the first training session at Carrington this week, Sir Alex Ferguson will have cause to rue an opportunity lost. Make no mistake, Chelsea was ripe for the taking at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. In the common vernacular: this was two points dropped.
Indeed, with key Chelsea defenders John Terry and Ashley Cole absent, together with Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young returning for the visitors, Ferguson’s side must surely have felt confident, despite a 10-year streak without beating the Londoners at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. As it turned out, Ferguson’s outfit was, perhaps, too confident.
True to Ferguson’s preferred script United controlled much of the first half, repeating the impressive possession game displayed both at Anfield last weekend, and against Stoke City on Tuesday night. Yet, with Villas-Boas’ side struggling to find any rhythm United was unable to translate territorial advantage into goals. Not unlike the previous two fixtures, United wielded a cutting edge that was decidedly blunt.
The visitors were to pay a heavy price for profligacy, after first Jonny Evans scored an unfortunate own goal, 10 minutes before half-time, then Chelsea struck twice more five minutes after the break. But no Ferguson side has ever been prone to throwing in the towel, even from a position seemingly beyond the bounds of possibility.
Even so, even by comparison to some great United comebacks, this was a resurgence rarely superseded in Ferguson’s 25 years at Old Trafford. It may have taken two disputed penalties to fire the Reds’ back into the game, but the verve with which Ferguson’s side attacked at 3-0 down compares to anything United has produced this season.
Yet, Ferguson is rarely one to celebrate a point gained, especially with a gap to Manchester City having now developed a lead at the head of the Premier League.
“The two penalties in the second half were justified. I think we could have had four in the game,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“They should’ve had a man sent off. Danny Welbeck’s clear through, brought down, but nothing, no decision. The linesman has given two penalties against as at Old Trafford in the last two years, one against Arsenal and one against Liverpool. 45 yards away and he gave them. I don’t blame Howard Webb, I blame the assistant. There was a pull on Ashley Young, inside the box, in front of the linesman and he doesn’t give it. Yet he gives them at Old Trafford.
“It’s two points dropped. We played so well, apart from the 10 minutes straight after halftime where we got off to a terrible start and lost two goals in five minutes. But, it’s not easy to come back from two goals down. That is a massive effort from our players. I thought we were the far better team. Once we got over those 10 minutes I thought we played very well. It was a massive effort from the team, and a great game. For a neutral watching that game it was fantastic.”
Ever the gambler, Ferguson threw on Mexican striker Hernández for Young with 35 minutes to go, pushing Danny Welbeck wide in the process. By the time Paul Scholes replaced Rafael da Silva just past the hour, United was attacking with six players. It was the same caution-to-the-wind attitude that had brought a thumping at home to Old Trafford earlier this season.
“We had to gamble. To be honest with you I perhaps should have played Chicharito from the start as when he came on he had the Chelsea defence under pressure with his movement and positional play,” added Ferguson. “Danny [Welbeck] was terrific and is going to be a top player but when Chicharito came on in the second half, it was a different game.”
Yet, the Scot was seen gesticulating from the sidelines as the Reds played out the final seven minutes plus injury time having seemingly retreated into a shell. Fergie had not rolled the dice only to see snake eyes comes up.
It could have been worse though, with Chelsea creating the better chances with five minutes to go. Indeed, the visitors were grateful to the much-maligned goalkeeper David de Gea for two outstanding saves late in the game.
“The save [by De Gea] from Mata’s free-kick was unbelievable. There were two or three other saves as well,” added Sir Alex.
“He’s played his part and I’m pleased as we can see the talent in the boy. In three or four years’ time we are going to see all of that but at the moment he’s made one or two mistakes but the introduction has been difficult for him. It’s not what he was used to in Spain. Today he showed that he is ready to get amongst it. He’s done a great job today.”
Ultimately though it was left to Rooney to sum up a match in which all could have been lost, yet, by its conclusion there was so much more to gain. The returning United striker’s movement, together with two well-struck penalties, were far too much for Chelsea’s makeshift back-four on a day in which United could have run up a cricket score.
“It’s two points lost,” Rooney told Sky Sports.
“We understand that, but after being 3-0 down – the City players at home must have liked that – we enjoyed the way we fought back. A lot of teams might have put their heads down and accepted defeat, but we never put our heads down, we carried on, worked hard and, thankfully, got something out of the game. We knew if we got one goal back there was enough time to gain something out of the game, so we dug in.”
Rooney called it a point that could “win United the title.” Yet, United face Liverpool at Old Trafford next Saturday, with away matches at Norwich City and then Tottenham Hotspur to follow a double-header with Ajax. It is a pivotal series of games, with City, by contrast, facing four winnable Premier League matches before hosting Chelsea on 19 March.
There’s no question, this was an outstanding fight-back, but come Monday morning Ferguson will understand that the Reds can afford to drop few points now. As the old cliché goes, it was a point gained; double the total lost.