Tag Chelsea

Tag Chelsea

Data Rant: Rooney’s sale makes sense

May 31, 2014 Tags: , , Data 34 comments
featured image

Paul Scholes caused much ruckus this week by claiming that “Wayne [Rooney’s peak] could have been … when he was 26.” Sir Alex Ferguson’s vehement efforts to dispatch Rooney also hints at something more than simply a personality clash. After all, on the pitch, the 28-year-old has been mediocre for three seasons now. The new four-year contract gifted to Rooney may prove to be the worst legacy of David Moyes’ era at Manchester United.

Louis van Gaal’s opinion on Rooney will certainly be interesting. The English forward’s versatility might appeal to van Gaal, but the Dutchman has surely spent too much time at Ajax and Barcelona to look past Rooney’s, sometimes horrifying, first touch. The incoming United manager could very well have instructed Ed Woodward to find a new home for the Scouser already.

For United, transferring Rooney to a continental club would be ideal, but not only does his huge wage offer a stumbling block, many top European clubs do not need the forward or have a better version already. Thomas Muller and Angel di Maria are just two examples.

England beckons, then, and Chelsea is the only realistic destination for the forward. Only Eden Hazard succeeded in scoring more than 10 goals in 2013/14 for Chelsea so there is a clear need for a number nine at Stamford Bridge. José Mourinho has long been an admirer of Rooney and the English striker would offer dependable firepower to Chelsea’s frontline. It is a marriage that suits all parties.

United’s most iconic player leaving for a rival could be a public relations nightmare, of course, and the Mourinho system is tailor-made for Rooney, which may allow the Englishman to flourish. Yet, if Rooney’s physical decline continues, the Reds will have the last laugh.

The London side was just as defensive as United last season, but managed to score seven more goals and concede 16 less across the campaign – this was achieved with the same 53 per cent average possession. The mobility and technical approach offered by Hazard and Willian, however, allowed the Blues to dribble past opponents where United did not. A classy striker will make the system tick.

table-1 - attacking attributes/goals scored

The data shows that Willian and Samuel Eto’o bear resemblance to Rooney and the Englishman would be a great replacement for the departing Cameroonian. Rooney’s scoring record last season was better last season than any Chelsea strikers.

Tactically Rooney should fit with Mourinho’s system. Juan Mata was ostracized at Stanford Bridge for doing little of the dirty work and Hazard was publicly chastised by Mourinho for the same reason. Considering that Rooney is diligent to the point of indiscipline there is every reason for the Portuguese to chase the wayward English striker.

Figure-1 - attacking attributes / goals scored

 

Deducing from the statistics of Chelsea’s forwards, Rooney could be expected to score 10 league goals if he moved to London. Apart from penalties, Rooney has largely monopolised set pieces at United – a luxury he will not enjoy at Chelsea – and his figures might drop even further as a result. Oscar and Hazard run the midfield so Rooney would be on the pitch to finish alone.

There are plenty of other striking options for Chelsea, with the London club closing in on Diego Costa, who is better finisher and might even cost less. Indeed, Rooney was probably earmarked for a defensive forward role last summer, such as that taken by Ji-Sung Park, which would have diminished Rooney’s output further.

Of course, statistics are only a guide, but the analysis suggests that Rooney might fall further from his peak in the coming years. If United took a Machiavellian view, the damage inflicted on Chelsea by Rooney declining rapidly at Stamford Bridge, far outweighs any chance of the English forward recovering the form of yesteryear.

The really frightening thing for United fans is that this analysis assumes Rooney will stay in rude health next season. He rarely has in the past.

Preview: Chelsea v Manchester United

January 18, 2014 Tags: , Matches 10 comments
featured image

Rarely, over the past decade, can Manchester United have been such outsiders for a trip to Stamford Bridge. True, Chelsea’s financial doping has bridged the chasm in size between the clubs since Roman Abramovich acquired the west Londoners in 2004, but rare indeed have the Reds been at such a comparatively low ebb. Victory over Swansea City last weekend has bought a little time, but with Chelsea slowly finding something close to championship form, few will back United to achieve a positive result. Indeed, odds of 4-1 or longer can be found on a win for the visitors. It can’t have been seen often, if ever.

Still, this is only a measure of United’s regression this season, with the Reds having slipped to six league defeats under David Moyes. The Reds head into Sunday’s match nine points behind Chelsea and 11 behind leaders Arsenal, but perhaps more significantly, six behind Liverpool as of Saturday evening. Defeat at Stamford Bridge might just be fatal to Moyes’ ambition of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

By contrast José Mourinho has brought a little stability to a Chelsea squad that is still desperately short both in central midfield and up front. Despite an inconsistent start to the new campaign the west Londoners’ have remained in contention this season. Mourinho’s outfit might not be favourites to take the Premier League, but now just two points adrift of Arsenal, Chelsea could yet secure the Portuguese manager’s third English title.

Meanwhile, the visitors seek to build on last weekend’s victory. With Sunday’s game rapidly followed by the Capital One Cup semi-final against Sunderland, and then matches against Cardiff City and Stoke City, Moyes believes that the Reds face a pivotal few days.

“There’s a chance it could set up a really good 10 days,” said Moyes on Friday.

“We won against Swansea, we’ve got a cup tie on Wednesday and could find it’s an important 10 days. Going to Chelsea is a big game and I’m looking forward to it.

“I’m more keen on winning the next game and the longer it goes, the more I’ll be able to start thinking about further down the line. But I’m always thinking about the top and not anything else.

“This is a big game for us to hang in there and we have to try to pick up points. There are a lot of games still to play. The recent league form has not been that bad and we should not have lost against Tottenham.”

Still, Moyes has never led a team to victory at Stamford Bridge, while Mourinho is yet to lose a home league match with the Blues. Indeed, the Scot’s record against leading clubs is as pitiful as Mourinho’s is impressive. Something might give, but on the surface it appears unlikely. Not least because Chelsea’s form has kicked into gear since defeat to Stoke in early December.

“Chelsea are improving and have started to find a balance with their forward players,” adds Moyes.

“They’ve got some really talented players like Oscar and Eden Hazard behind the striker they choose to play. They have got good players and a talented team.

“Chelsea have shown over the years they’re strong at Stamford Bridge and we need to go there and make sure we’re hard to play against. We need to make it a difficult day for Chelsea like they made it a difficult day for us at Old Trafford.

“The team here has been used to big games over the years and I don’t think I see this one any differently. It was a tight game at Old Trafford at the start of the season and there is a good chance it could be much the same. Jose has a great record at Stamford Bridge, so we need to try to change that.”

Chelsea v Manchester United, Premier League, Stamford Bridge, 4pm, 19 January 2014If Moyes side is to secure something from the trip south then it will do so without strikers Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie. The Scouser has returned from a week’s recuperation in Egypt, while van Persie has been missing since mid-December with a thigh problem. Rooney could return for United’s Capital One Cup match in midweek, although the Dutchman is unlikely to feature for another fortnight at best.

“Wayne’s come back, he’s fresh but he’s not ready for Chelsea,” said Moyes.

“He’s training, he’s on the grass, doing some running and looking quite good. He’s had a break, done a lot of strengthening work around his groin and hopefully enjoyed a few days in the sunshine as well. Hopefully he’ll benefit from it, but not for this game.

“I don’t want to put a date on it just now as I don’t want to say he’ll be fit for whatever game and then I find he’s not, but we’ve just got to take it bit by bit. I’ve watched him running today; he looks well and is in really good condition.”

“I’m hoping Robin has a good chance of training at the start of next week, so if I can get him back out on the grass and back with us, it’ll be a great boost for us all. He’s a really important player, but he’s getting closer now.”

Fabio da Silva serves the last of a three match suspension, while Jonny Evans faces a race to be fit in time. Chris Smalling will feature in central defence if the Irishman is unfit. Nani and Ashley Young are both out.

Meanwhile, Mourinho is unlikely to start £21 million winter acquisition Nemanja Matic, although Frank Lampard could return from a calf problem to anchor Chelsea’s midfield. Defender Branislav Ivanovic is out with a knee injury, while the Portuguese manager will chose between Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o in attack.

Whatever the line-up, Mourinho’s record against United in London is near impeccable, although the Reds secured a 3-2 victory against nine-man Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season. It was one of 30 wins at Chelsea’s home down the years. The odds – correctly it would seem – rank number 31 as a long-shot.

Chelsea v Manchester United, Premier League, Stamford Bridge, 4pm, 19 January 2014

Possible Teams
Chelsea (4-2-31): Cech; Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Cole; Luiz, Lampard; Ramires, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Schwarzer, Hilario, Eto’o, Mikel, Willian, Schurrle, Mata, Essien, Ba, Kalas, Matic

United (4-5-1): De Gea; Rafaek, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Fletcher, Januzaj; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Buttner, Kagawa, Zaha, Giggs, Hernández

Head-to-head
Chelsea 47 Draw 50 United 72

Officials
Referee: Phil Dowd
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Ledger
Fourth Official: L Probert

Prediction
1-0

Matchday Forum discussion

Preview: United v Chelsea

August 25, 2013 Tags: , Matches
featured image

José Mourinho returns to Old Trafford as Chelsea manager for the first time in six years, but for once his old friend and enemy Sir Alex Ferguson is not be in the home dugout. It is nearly a decade since the Portuguese ran down the Old Trafford touchline in celebration of Porto’s controversial Champions League victory in 2004; a moment that seemingly encapsulates the manager’s career. At once brilliant, infuriating, deceitful, and utterly conceited.

And permeating through the game remains Chelsea’s aggressive pursuit of Wayne Rooney this summer. Player and west London club have all but agreed the move south. United remain firm that the striker will not be allowed to move to a major rival for the Premier League.

Indeed, while Mourinho insists that no bid will be lodged before kick-off on Monday it is no coincidence that every major media outlet carried the story that Chelsea will offer up to £40 million for Rooney on Tuesday.

It only takes “an email” to place a bid said Mourniho on Friday. It is unlikely to be sent given United’s stance, with Mourinho keen it seems to get inside the player’s head. The ongoing saga can do little but unsettle a player who has long since moved on – mentally at least – from his nine years in Manchester.

Still, while Chelsea has been left in little doubt that Rooney is not for sale by Ed Woodward’s “terse warning” this week, Mourinho claimed on Friday that the prospective move to the London club would benefit English football in the round.

“That old-fashioned mentality of ‘I don’t sell players to the same country’ doesn’t help the market,” said Mourinho.

“You see in Italy, it happens every season without any problem. The player wants to move from Milan to Inter, from Inter to Milan, from Roma to Juventus, from Juventus to Inter, and they do this all the time.

“Sometimes you push players abroad when you should be interested in keeping them in your league, because you are contributing to make your league the best. So when you want to sell and you are pushing the players abroad I think you are giving the wrong contribution to the league.”

Mourinho said little of the prospective transfer’s affect on world peace, but it is probably only a matter of time.

Disrupting United’s start to the season is part of Mourinho’s design, of course, despite the Portuguese’s disingenuous claims to the contrary on Friday. And whether ill-conceived logic, or a tactical double bluff, David Moyes insists that Rooney could start against his prospective employers, although it is more likely the player’s frame-of-mind is far from sound for a match of such importance early in the season.

Yet, the focus is not solely on Mourinho and Rooney for Monday’s fixture. After all Moyes will take charge of his first competitive fixture at Old Trafford. It is set to be a special day for the 50-year-old Scot who has endured a tough couple of months as Sir Alex’ successor.

“There has been a lot of things I have been looking forward to – like taking the team on tour and leading them out at Wembley. But to do it at Old Trafford for the first game against Chelsea is a thrill for me, it really is,” the Scot said Friday.

“It would have been, no matter who we were playing. It is just part of my job though and once you do it, you get on and do your job. It is a great honour to be manager of Manchester United. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t want to be in this position.”

Manchester United v ChelseaThe Rooney question aside Moyes has injury problems throughout the squad, with Rafael da Silva unavailable, while Ashley Young, Nani and Javier Hernández are not yet ready for selection. The Brazilian defender will spend a month on the sidelines, while others, says Moyes, are still playing catch up from a disrupted by injury or international football.

The Scot will choose between Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa for a place on the left wing, with Rooney likely to start from the bench. Antonio Valencia should start on the right flank in what could be an unchanged side.

Off the pitch comparisons between the two new managers are inevitable. In 11 seasons with Everton Moyes failed to secure any silverware, while Mournho has garnered seven league titles and two Champions League trophies in a similar period.

Reserved, conservative and uncontroversial, Moyes was always considered the more appropriate choice by United’s directors. While Mourinho’s penchant for picking a fight, with ensuing potential for collateral damage, was never a friend of the Glazer family’s clean-cut image.

Still, the two men have little history of controversy, alhtough Mourinho has secured five victories from six meetings between Chelsea and Everton during the Portguese’s first spell in west London.

“I really like José, he’s had great success and I’ve not seen him for a long time so I’m looking forward to seeing him,” said Moyes.

“I came (to United) for this sort of level of game, but I came to win trophies. If you are going to win trophies then you are going to have to beat teams like Chelsea and Manchester City because that’s the way our league is. I’m looking forward to it. It’s one of 38 league games we’ve got this season and it’s a great first home game.”

Moyes is under pressure though, especially given United’s failure to augment the Scot’s resources during the transfer window. Despite Moyes’ decision to replace most of the coaching staff at Old Trafford the team remains Ferguson’s; a shadow lengthened not only by the length of tenure but trophy count. And even in this Mourinho’s capacity to create doubt figures prominently.

“The history of Sir Alex is there forever. Is that a problem for David? I don’t think so because I don’t think David wants to be compared with Sir Alex,” said the former Real Madrid coach.

“David is an experienced manager and this is the best moment of his career. He has maturity, experience, a big club, very good players so he is in a fantastic position and I think he is going to do very well.

“I hope he doesn’t win everything and leaves something for the others. He knows to be successful he has to win trophies, but he has the potential to do that.”

That goal will certainly be easier should United beat Chelsea on Monday, with a reverse leaving the west Londoners six points clear so early in the campaign. And wouldn’t it fit the narrative so sweetly should Rooney score the winning goal?

Manchester United v Chelsea, Premier League, Old Trafford, 8pm 26 August 2013

Teams
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Cleverley; Valencia, Welbeck, Giggs; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Buttner, F da Silva, Smalling, Anderson, Zaha, Rooney

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Lampard; Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Ba. Subs from: Schwarzer, Azpilicueta, Mikel, De Bruyne, Van Ginkel, Schurrle, Lukaku

Head-to-Head
United 72 – Draw 49 – Chelsea 47

Officials
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: P Kirkup, S Long
Fourth Official: M Dean

Prediction
1-1

Preview: United v Chelsea

May 5, 2013 Tags: , Matches 118 comments
featured image

The season may be winding down, but Sir Alex Ferguson appears in no mood to for his team to let up just yet. Manchester United’s creditable draw at Arsenal last weekend followed a slow start at the Emirates, but a strong second half performance left Ferguson’s men disappointed to leave the north London with just a point.

What then of United’s fixture with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday? With little on the line for the Reds, but everything for Rafa Benitez’ visitors, it is another match of contrasting motivations.

The title secured, Ferguson’s men have little but a modicum of revenge at stake. And pride in the integrity of competition, of course, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur each chasing Champions League places.

After all, while United secured victory at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League earlier this season, Chelsea knocked Ferguson’s side out of two cup competitions during the campaign.

Meanwhile, Benitez has just a handful of games to secure Champions League football next season, with Chelsea in a three-way race for third and fourth spots in the Premier League.

United, in relaxed mood, will surely lack the a certain edge on the biggest occasion, of course. But if the Reds’ second-half performance against Arsenal is any evidence, Ferguson is unlikely to being in charitable mood. Not, of course, given the personal animosity between the Scot and Benitez, which has rarely been kept below the surface since the Spaniard’s “facts” rant in January 2009.

This is a relationship built on anything but trust and mutual respect. Indeed, Benitez is one of the few managers to eschew the norms of managerial conduct, says Ferguson. The Spaniard accused Ferguson of refusing to shake his hand after the 2-2 FA Cup draw  earlier this season.

“At the end of a game I always shake hands and we always have a meeting in my office afterwards with both sets of staff,” said the 71-year-old United manager this week.

“It is the right thing to do. It is an opportunity to get away from the game itself. You maybe see managers twice a year, so that opportunity to spend half an hour with them after a match is vital. You can discuss your jobs and a lot of issues.

“It is not easy if you have lost a game to go in. It is our chance to show we are Manchester United. No matter the result, go in. He (Benitez) came in once when he was at Liverpool. I don’t think he has come in again.”

Benitez says he will not share a glass with Sir Alex on Sunday either whatever the result.

Chelsea beat FC Basel on Thursday to reach the Europa League final, one goal of the three handed to Benitez when he took the reigns earlier in the campaign.

The west London outfit lost an FA Cup semi-final to Manchester City, while the Blues slipped to fourth in the Premier League after victories for both Arsenal and Spurs on Saturday. Next Wednesday’s clash against Spurs could prove decisive in the race for fourth.

But it has also been a period of upheaval at Stamford Bridge, with Benitez not only facing protests from the terraces, but standing accused of prioritising cup competitions over Chelsea’s greater need for Champions League football next season.

“He is very concerned about his CV,” jibed Ferguson. “He refers to it quite a lot.”

Meanwhile, Benitez this week accused Ferguson of buying years of success – and suggested that the relationship between the two managers has been strained only because of the Spaniard’s challenge to the older man.

“When you are with a top side, and you have had more money than anyone for years, then you can keep winning and you can keep talking,” said Benitez, who will again be out of a job come 19 May.

“He doesn’t (like me), he doesn’t, but it depends on the moment. You have to do what you have to do for your team. At the time (2009), he knew that Liverpool were very close. That was the situation. Now it is very different because they have won the title. But are they better than Manchester City? I am not sure. Are they better than Chelsea? I am not sure.”

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League, Old Trafford - 5 May 2013, 4pmWhile United’s points lead over City stands at 13, it is 20 greater than Chelsea’s. Still, Sunday offers another opportunity for bragging rights in a techy relationship between the two men.

Ferguson’s team heads into the clash fresher, but without a clutch of players. Ashley Young remains out, while Danny Welbeck is unlikely to return before next week’s fixture with Swansea City. However, veteran Paul Scholes should return to the squad for Sunday’s match.

“Welbeck is out of Sunday,” Sir Alex confirmed. “The rest are all fit. Scholes and Vidic are training and I’ll probably put Scholes on the bench on Sunday to get him back into the fray. I’d love him to play in the Swansea game.

“Chelsea have done fantastically well over the last few weeks and they are in the final of the Europa League. Chelsea are chasing a Champions League place as well and we’ll be playing the strongest team we can. We need to play with good enthusiasm and enjoy it. We should express ourselves and try to finish off a good season.”

Meanwhile, Benitez’ team heads north with rumours of José Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge resonating throughout the travelling support. It will do little but undermine the Spaniard’s position.

Still, with the Blues reaching the Europa League final, the mood in the camp is buoyant. The side also receives a double boost, with left-back Ashley Cole returning after missing Thursday’s Europa League win over Basel through suspension, and striker Demba Ba is also available again.

Oscar, John Terry and Eden Hazard could all return after being rotated out of the side for the clash with Basel. However, Benitez must balance his line-up against United against the one that played against the Swiss, and Wednesday’s crucial fixture with Spurs.

Match details
Manchester United v Chelsea – Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 5 May 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Giggs; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Jones, Evans, Powell, Scholes, Cleverley, Anderson, Nani, Welbeck, Hernández

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Lampard, Mikel; Oscar, Hazard, Mata; Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Hilario, Bertrand, Terry, Azpilicueta, Ramires, Moses, Benayoun, Marin, Ake, Ferreira, Ba.

Match officials
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistants: M Mullarkey, S Massey
Fourth Official: A Marriner

Form
United: LLWDWD
Chelsea: LWDWWW

Head-to-Head
Last 10: United 5, Chelsea 3, Draw 2
Overall: United 72, Chelsea 46, Draw 49

Stats

  • Wayne Rooney’s future may be uncertain, but his numbers remain positive, with 123 attacking contributions this season, as well as a pass in the opponent’s half once every 3.1 minutes on average;
  • French international Patrice Evra currently lies third in the United squad for crosses delivered with 42 – he is the second oldest full-back in the league to have broken the 30-cross barrier, behind Reading’s Nicky Shorey;
  • Danny Welbeck has been deployed up-front and on the flank this season, but boasts just a 56.3 per cent shot accuracy rate in front of goal despite managing an attempt on goal once every 42.2 minutes he’s been on the pitch;
  • Frank Lampard scored last week, edging the midfielder towards a club record goals tally – Lampard has achieved a shot accuracy rate of 63.5 per cent from 63 attempts this season, one shot every 44.3 minutes on the pitch;
  • David Luiz has made more interceptions than any other Blues player this season with 122, as well as averaging at a squad-best rate of defensive contributions – one every 13.1 minutes according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • Eden Hazard lies second to Juan Mata as Chelsea’s main creative force, making an attacking contribution (dribble, cross, shot on target or assist) on average once every 16.5 minutes, as well as joining an elite group of players to have made a pass in the opponent’s half  once every 3 minutes or less on average.

Prediction
1-1

Preview: Chelsea v United

March 31, 2013 Tags: , Matches 76 comments
featured image

Just 48 hours on from a laboured victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side hits the road once again on Monday. The Scot flew his Manchester United team home from the north east at the weekend, seeking any possible advantage ahead of United’s FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea on Easter Monday. And while Monday’s match is another away from Old Trafford for United’s weary players, it is one with a significant carrot: victory brings a semi against rivals Manchester City at Wembley.

United took another huge step towards reclaiming the Premier League title at the weekend by securing three points against relegation threatened Sunderland. Ferguson can hardly have been impressed with his side’s efforts though; the third match in succession that the Reds achieved just enough, but little more.

That short run of mediocre form includes the opening cup match between these sides – a 2-2 draw in which Ferguson’s side was left hanging on for a draw just days after defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Indeed, United’s break against Chelsea at Old Trafford came amid a strong finish from the Londoners, while Ferguson’s players appeared spent by the tie’s end.

The contrasting fortunes of the sides in recent weeks sets up Monday’s Cup clash; a battle that will go some way to define two campaigns.

“I thought we were lucky to be honest with you,” said Sir Alex of the first quarter-final clash between the sides.

“I thought that tiredness had got into the team and, from a comfortable position for the first 20 minutes, you could see the signs when we started to give the ball away just before half-time. That is a definite sign of tiredness.

“The tiredness came, possibly, from the emotional intensity of the Real Madrid game and also the way we lost it. In the second half in particular there was no doubt that Tom Cleverley’s and our two full-backs’ legs had gone. That made it a long game against Chelsea and they had the advantage of extra players in midfield.”

Two days after each side played in the Premier League, the respective stamina of these squads will once again be tested, with Ferguson likely to make wholesale changes at Stamford Bridge. He has little choice given United’s leg-weariness in recent matches.

Chelsea v Manchester United - FA Cup, Stamford Bridge - 12.30pm, 1 April 2013Ferguson could bring in eight or more new players, with Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nani, Javier Hernández and Tom Cleverley coming back into the side against Rafa Benitez’ outfit. Defenders Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand should also return after being rested against Sunderland.

Meanwhile, the Spaniard will again make changes to the side that lost at St Mary’s having rotated his squad heavily against Southampton on Saturday. Indeed, accusations that Benitez put his own vanity – a potential Cup win – over the club’s need for Champions League football next season weigh heavily on the temporary manager. After all, the former Liverpool manager has no chance of taking the role full time.

There is some good news for Benitez though, with Juan Mata returning to the Blues’ side after recovering from illness, although Gary Cahill is rated doubtful for the lunchtime clash.

Still, the home side has looked fresher in recent weeks, with Champions League football seemingly secure until Saturday’s defeat and the Europa League offering none of it’s bigger brother’s intensity. Defeat to Southampton may change the picture domestically at least, although in the short term it is United that must also overcome the disadvantage of both fatigue and injuries.

“We picked up two or three injuries, which doesn’t help,” said Ferguson after the Reds’ weekend victory.

“It was all down to the courage of the players that they got through it. Rafael got injured and Jonny Evans got a bit of a knock but carried on. That was great because we couldn’t afford to take him off. He said he’d last as long as he could but he got through it.

“I thought we’d lost David De Gea for a moment. He was out for a few minutes but recovered and played a really great part for us. Generally, we have a few bumps and bruises but we handled it well.”

With a double to chase this is no time for United’s season to wind down of course, although Ferguson’s hope of securing a record Premier League points total looks unrealistic on very recent form.

Still, with the Scot’s squad broad, if not truly deep, Ferguson will exploit the full resources on offer. After all, gaving gone 18 league matches without defeat has all but secured the Premier League title.

Should United win, the side will face City twice in a week; first, at Old Trafford in the Premier League next Monday, and then a Cup semi at Wembley on 14 April. Two games that will go a long way to deciding the Reds’ fate this season.

“We want to win the Double and we took a big step in the league,” van Persie told MUTV on Saturday.

“But we want to go for both. Now we have to look ahead to the FA Cup tie against Chelsea. It’s going to be a big test but I’m quite confident we can play well at Stamford Bridge and get a good result.

“It’s been nine years since United have won the FA Cup. It’s important to us. We have a big chance of reaching the semi-final against City. I don’t want to look too far ahead but we have a massive chance of winning the competition.”

With Cup final victory will surely come a first double since 1999 – the moment of Ferguson’s greatest hour. There are three tough matches in the competition before that, however, although with the Reds 15 points clear in the Premier League Ferguson can at least afford to refocus.

First, however, United must achieve a rare first – FA Cup victory at Stamford Bridge.

Match details
Chelsea v Manchester United – FA Cup, Stamford Bridge – 1 April 2013 March 2013, 12.30pm

Possible teams
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Benayoun, Marin, Moses, Ba

United (4-3-3): de Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick, Giggs; Nani, Hernández, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Young, Scholes, Valencia, Anderson, Kagawa, Welbeck, van Persie

Match officials
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Peter Kirkup and Andy Garratt
Fourth Official: Neil Swarbrick

Form
Chelsea: WLDWWL
United: WWLDWW

Head to Head
Last 10: Chelsea 2, United 6, Draw 2
Overall: Chelsea 45, United 72, Draw 49

Prediction
1-2

Lampard unchained

January 18, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 33 comments

In recent weeks speculation has mounted that Chelsea’s Frank Lampard may be on his way to Old Trafford when the player’s Chelsea contract ends at the end of the season. The gossip has caused much consternation among Manchester United fans who, starting to doubt the waning powers of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, struggle to see the value of bringing yet another veteran into Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.

Certainly this season has seen Scholes and, in particular Giggs, stray further away from fans’ affections. Ferguson was heavily criticised by some supporters when he threw on the pair in United’s recent 1-1 draw against Swansea City as the Reds chased a victory.

Similarly, Scholes and Giggs’ lack of dynamism in the Boxing Day game against Newcastle United was cited as a reason for United’s lacklustre performance in the first hour of that match. Meanwhile, Ferdinand’s reputation has also been damaged due to United’s often woeful defending in the first half of the season.

Why then is Ferguson seemingly in the market for another player in his mid-30s?

Perhaps it is expedient. After all, it is not certain that any of his veterans will still be at the club come next season. Rumours have recently circulated that Ferdinand may be on his way to China in the search of one final giant pay cheque, while neither Scholes, nor Giggs, have committed to contracts next season amid rumours of imminent retirement.

In the event of the pair’s departure, United will lose 1638 games worth of experience in one go. It is a scenario in which Lampard arrives as a necessary replacement for, rather than a superfluous addition to, the squad’s most experienced players.

With Darren Fletcher seemingly unlikely to ever make a full return to Ferguson’s first team, following surgery on a bowel condition this week, United will be surely be further depleted of experience in the coming months.

Beyond experience Ferguson is attracted to Lampard’s enduring class. The midfielder has been at the centre of a Chelsea side that transformed from a decent Premiership outfit to a world football power in the past 10 years. In that time Lampard has been the Premier League’s preeminent goal-scoring midfielder, plundering an incredible 194 goals in 12 seasons for the Blues. Lampard’s presence was crucial as Chelsea finally claimed the Champions League last summer

Lampard’s hero-esque status also renders the Chelsea idol unsuitable for a rival such as United according to some, although the Londoner is generally viewed with respect among United’s following – a few ill-founded jokes about his weight apart. Certainly, Lampard has never aroused the passionate animosity that has always followed teammate John Terry and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.

Lampard would not be the first player to swap west London for Salford. Former Chelsea assistant manager Ray Wilkins served both clubs in the 1980s and the former England international believes that Chelsea’s vice-captain could do the same.
“He’ll want to continue and play at a high level – and there’s no higher level than Old Trafford,” Wilkins recently said. Wilkins also dubbed Ferguson “the master of utilising the older player” and suggested that his recent record of prolonging the careers of ageing players might appeal to the 34-year old Lampard.

Lampard claimed as recently as August that he can still play “at the top level for a good few years” and it seems unlikely that the midfielder is ready to follow former teammate Didier Drogba to one of football’s less popular leagues in search of an easily gained fortune. Certainly, with seven goals from 13 league games so far this season, some of which Lampard started on the bench, the midfielder’s capabilities show little sign of abating.

If Lampard makes the move north, no matter how unlikely, there will inevitably be those who chide the decision as a backward step by Sir Alex and a hindrance to some of the Scot’s younger starlets. It is a genuine fear, not least given the departure of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison since Scholes came out of retirement last January. Since then Pogba has proven to be a hit in Turin with Juventus, while Morrison is undergoing a revival at Birmingham City. Lampard’s acquisition, should it come to pass, will doubtless give rise to similar fears.

Yet, there is perhaps a prescient transfer in Italy on which Ferguson may draw inspiration. In summer 2011 AC Milan allowed ageing midfielder Andrea Pirlo to leave on a free transfer to rivals Juventus. The Italian playmaker inspired his new club to a resounding victory in the Serie A title race and starred at Euro 2012. Chelsea will be hope that they aren’t rueing a similar situation at the end of next season.

Preview: Chelsea v United (COC)

October 31, 2012 Tags: , Matches 100 comments

Like London buses incidents of racism appear to come in threes in English football; a trio of shocking accusations that have left the beautiful game with a festering wound. When Manchester United visits Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, for the second in a league and cup double-header this week it is, once again, the most unsavoury side of the game that will dominate the headlines. It should not be this way; a game no longer at one with itself.

First, a little over a year ago, Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra, repeatedly and with malice. Shortly after, John Terry called Anton Ferdinand a “f*cking black c*nt” – a crime for which the Chelsea captain is serving a far too lenient ban.

In the latest dark moment for the game referee Mark Clattenburg stands accused of racially abusing two Chelsea players – John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata. While nothing is yet proven of Clattenburg’s actions last Sunday, briefing and counter briefing through the mass media has done little to clarify the picture of an alleged incident that may yet have major ramifications for the game.

The episode, taken together with Chelsea’s perceived injustices during the Premier League encounter on Sunday – Fernando Torres’ red card, Javier Hernández’ winning goal – means there will be a feisty atmosphere for what might otherwise have been a tepid affair. Whatever the merits of the Capital One Cup, Wednesday’s tie was always going to feel like the morning after the Lord Mayor’s show. No longer so.

Still, there is a game on and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to field a fringe side for the fourth round tie in west London. Out go United’s old guard, including Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick; in come a host of youngsters and squad players in need of playing time.

Chelsea v Manchester United - Capital One Cup, Stamford Bridge - 31 October 2012, 7.45pmIndeed, Ferguson is likely to make at least 10 changes from the side that started at the Bridge on Sunday, although winning goalscorer Hernández could start alongside Danny Welbeck in attack. Into the side may also come defenders Alexander Büttner, Michael Keane, and Scott Wootton, together with Nani, Anderson and Anders Lindegaard.

“Obviously we will make changes for the Wednesday game,” confirmed Ferguson, with United seeking consecutive wins at Stamford Bridge for the first time since 1998.

“The squad that played against Newcastle will be in place again. You don’t want to lose down there and we want to continue in the cup. Any game down there is going to be tough. There has been good progress there since Roberto di Matteo took the job. They are big games – and big games are good for us.”

However, the game will come too soon for defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, although each is nearing a return that will bring to a close a defensive headache that has seemingly overshadowed Ferguson’s squad since August. Captain Nemanja Vidić is likely to be on the sidelines until December at a minimum.

“We will try to push Chris on quickly,” added Ferguson of the 22-year-old centre back.

“I don’t think he will make Wednesday’s game but I am sure he will be ready for the following week. There was some hope both he and Phil would be back for this busy schedule. Phil will be starting football training next Monday. He still has some running to do. The good news is they are not far away.”

Smalling’s loss is potentially others gain, with at least one of Wootton or Keane likely to start at Stamford Bridge. Keane impressed with a classy performance against Newcastle United at Old Trafford in the third round, although as the senior party Wootton is more likely to start.

Still, Keane is relishing the opportunity to be part of United’s party travelling south once again this week. The Stockport-born youngster is United’s current Reserve Team Player of the Year.

“You play games with more pressure when you get to a higher level,” the 19-year-old told MUTV.

“Every game you play, you’ve got more experience of playing for points and playing because it means something rather than just friendlies. When you get called into the first team, you’re used to being desperate to win.

“I was so tired [after the Newcastle tie]. I’ve never been that tired after a game. Mentally as well as physically because of the concentration, how the day went building up to it and then the 90 minutes was tough but we did well.

“I know there’s probably only going to be one or two opportunities because of the players involved but I can’t think like that. I’ve just got to work hard every day in training and prove I’m good enough to play and, hopefully, get picked. I keep stepping up a level and, hopefully, that will keep happening and I can progress with England and keep getting my chances here in the first team.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo is likely to rest those most closely involved in the post-match argument with Clattenburg, including the alleged victims of on-the-field abuse, Mikel and Mata.

The west London club this week made a formal complaint that the Geordie referee used “inappropriate language” on the field, while briefing the press that words of a racist nature were uttered by Clattenburg. It is likely to be another long-running and highly damaging saga.

On the pitch Di Matteo is without a host of first-team regulars through injury and suspension, meaning a much changed Chelsea side is likely to be deployed for United’s visit.

“It is certainly a tricky situation,” said the 42-year-old Italian.

“We have Branislav Ivanovic, Fernando Torres and John Terry suspended, and Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole out injured. Ashley’s ankle is sore and swollen and he won’t recover in time for tomorrow. So it reduces the squad but everybody else is okay. We always talk about developing and giving youngsters a chance so this type of game is a good opportunity for some of them.”

It is a strategy, for one match at least, mirrored by the visitors. In that there is hope for the future. If not the game itself, then of the respective clubs at least.

Match Details
Chelsea v Manchester United – Capital One Cup, Stamford Bridge – Wednesday 31 October 2012, 7.45pm

Possible teams
Chelsea (4-4-2): Hilário; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill, Bertrand; Marin, Ramires, Romeu, Moses; Sturridge, Piazón. Subs from: Turnbull, Ferreira, Mikel, Oscar, Mata, Hazard, Torres, Malouda, Feruz.

United (4-3-3): Lindegaard; Keane, Wootton, Evans, Buttner; Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher; Nani, Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Johnstone, De Gea, Cole, Lingard, Vermijl, Rafael, Valencia, Giggs, Young, Powell, Macheda, King, Henríquez.

Officials
Referee: L Mason
Assistant referees: J Collin and J Brooks
Fourth Official: M Dean

Form
Chelsea: WWWWLL
United: WLWWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Chelsea 2, Draw 2
Overall: United 79, Chelsea 41, Draw 48

Prediction
2-0

Reds’ slice of luck Bridges a decade of ill fortune

October 29, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 37 comments

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.

Preview: Chelsea v United

October 27, 2012 Tags: , Matches 134 comments

There are few place that Sir Alex Ferguson visits with justifiable trepidation, not considering the 70-year-old’s record without peer, but Stamford Bridge is surely one. In 25 trips to the west London ground during Ferguson’s reign, Manchester United has emerged victorious just six times. Indeed, Ferguson’s record in 50 matches against the Londoners is only marginally victorious – one that will be tested once again as United visit the Premier League leaders on Sunday.

United has infrequently impressed this season, although the Reds campaign clicks into another gear in the coming week, with a league and cup double-header against Chelsea, followed by Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford next weekend. The next seven days could prove a crucial period, with defeat at Stamford Bridge leaving United seven points behind the leaders.

Ferguson’s men must defend better than in recent weeks if United is to get a result on Sunday, especially given the nature of soft goals conceded against both Stoke City and SC Braga in recent matches. And that is to say little for Chelsea’s firepower this season as Roman Abramovich’s attacking evolution takes hold a Stamford Bridge.

“They’re top of the league after a great start to the season – they’ve done really well,” Ferguson told the media on Friday.

“They’ve played an interesting formation and it’s something we have to deal with. They’ve brought Oscar and Hazard into the team – they’re similar types of players, I think. They’re adapting to having players like Mata also in the same position – there is a situation where they’re in behind the front player all the time. It’s not an easy system to deal with, but we just have to find a way.

“They’re all similar players, they play in behind the main striker. Of course they don’t have Didier Drogba so their game had to change anyway. They always had that alternative route of playing with Drogba up front – they could play it long or they could play it through midfield. Now it’s straightforward, it’s through midfield all the time.”

United’s transformation this season, initially built around Shinji Kagawa’s creativity and Robin van Persie’s goals, has halted in recent weeks as Ferguson tinkered with formations and tactics. Kagawa will miss the match – and the next month – with a knee injury, although Sir Alex had marginalised the Japanese midfield in recent weeks in any case.

Chelsea v Manchester United – Premier League, Stamford Bridge – Sunday 29 October 2012, 4pmIndeed, Ferguson’s tactical thinking will be tested once again at Stamford Bridge where the Scot’s predilection for defensive selections in crucial matches over the past year may yet come to the fore. More than a few United fans will be thankful that Park Ji-Sung’s departure last summer means the South Korean cannot start on Sunday.

Still, with Paul Scholes likely to start alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield, Ferguson will call on plenty of experience in west London for a crucial week ahead. Meanwhile,

David de Gea will retain the goalkeeper’s spot with Anders Lindegaard out, and Chris Smalling could return to the matchday squad after recovering from long-term injury.

“We’ve got three massive games really in a week,” admitted Scholes.

“Obviously Chelsea twice and then Arsenal at home. Sunday is a big one. We’ve not got a brilliant record at Chelsea over the last few years and it’s something we hope we can change.

“We watched them against Tottenham last week. They’ve signed a different type of player to a couple of years back when you were looking at a big, powerful team. Now they’ve signed smaller, better footballers who are difficult to play against. We know each of them is capable of creating chances and scoring goals themselves.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Robert Di Matteo is without captain John Terry, who is banned for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand last year, and Frank Lampard who has a calf injury. More pressing still, De Matteo is seeking a response from his players after the side’s Champions League defeat to Shaktar Donetsk in midweek.

Defeat has undermined an outstanding start to the new campaign by the European champions, but Ferguson’s men must still overcome the Premier League’s only 100 per cent home record to take anything from Sunday’s match. It is a record every bit as daunting as Ferguson’s is underwhelming in matches at Stamford Bridge over the years.

Match Details
Chelsea v Manchester United – Premier League, Stamford Bridge – Sunday 29 October 2012, 4pm

Possible teams
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Hilário, Bertrand, Azpilicueta, Romeu, Ferreira, Moses, Malouda, Piazón, Marin, Sturridge.

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Johnstone, Wootton, Buttner, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Giggs, Nani, Young, Hernández.

Officials
Referee: M Clattenburg
Assistants: M McDonough, S Long
Fourth Official: M Jones

Form
Chelsea: WWWWWL
United: WWLWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 5, Chelsea 3, Draw 2
Overall: United 78, Chelsea 41, Draw 48

Stats

  • Despite a disappointing Champions League outing in the week, Chelsea’s Premier League form has been outstanding this season, with the Blues recording a 4-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur last weekend;
  • That performance means Chelsea now has four of the top five ranked players in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index this season, with Juan Mata top ahead of Fernando Torres in second, Eden Hazard in third, and Branislav Ivanovic in fifth;
  • Mata now has three goals and five assists to his name, and has completed 271 passes in his opponents half – the fifth highest number of passes overall in the Index;
  • Mata covered 6.95 miles against Spurs, the most by a Chelsea player in a single game so far this season, while Ramires’ 6.69 miles in the same game was the second highest,;
  • Defender Cahill, increasingly be in the spotlight as John Terry serves a four match ban, has two goals to his name this season, and has made an impressive six blocks – Chelsea’s defenders have scored six of the side’s 18 goals this season;
  • Brazilian Oscar has netted twice in Europe this season, but is yet to score in the Premier League, although the youngster has made 13 attempts at goal;
  • Meanwhile, van Persie remains joint top goalscorer in the Premier League with six goals from eight games – the Dutchman’s haul coming from 17 shots at goal;
  • Early rivals for the golden boot, Michu and Demba Ba, are both also on six goals too, but have required 20 and 30 efforts at goal to reach that total;
  • van Persie’s ratio of shots on target is just 47 percent, but the striker still has one of the best minutes-per-goal quotients in the league with one every 106 minutes and 40 seconds this season;
  • Paul Scholes picked up his fourth yellow card in just 440 minutes of play against Stoke last weekend, although the midfielder may consider his reputation a factor as he had committed just nine fouls compared to Aston Villa’s Karim El Ahmadi who has committed 17 fouls the same number of cards;
  • Rooney’s 6.75 miles against Stoke was the joint highest distance covered by a United player in a single game this season, while Carrick’s 6.63 miles was enough to put the Geordie fourth overall in the Index for distance covered with 49.56 miles

Prediction
2-2

Stunning comeback masks opportunity lost

February 5, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 30 comments

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.