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Quartet return to boost Reds at Chelsea

February 4, 2012 Tags: , Matches 156 comments

Manchester United heads to London this weekend seeking to overturn a decade-long winless streak at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. Although Sir Alex Ferguson’s men comfortably beat the Londoners in the Champions League last season, United hasn’t emerged victorious over Chelsea on the road, domestically, since 2001. With Manchester City moving three points ahead in the Premier League title race on Saturday night, Ferguson is desperate to turn the series of poor results around.

The Scot will have no better chance, with Ferguson welcoming back a quartet of injured stars into the United squad. While Wayne Rooney makes his expected comeback, wingers Nani and Ashley Young provide welcome, if surprising, additions to the United party travelling south.

Not before time, supporters might add, with the Reds facing a tough run of games before the spring. United’s visit to Chelsea is followed by games with Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and the double-header against Ajax in the coming weeks.

“We’ve done very well away from home this season and we need to be good from now on,” Ferguson told Inside United.

“We’ve got some really important away games in the run-in – Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City. They’re going to be crucial games. Games at Chelsea in the last few years have been tough and we’ve had terrible luck there which has caused us disappointing results. The players know what they need to do. They know their responsibilities and the standard and expectation at the club, and they have to carry those things with them when they go into games.”

Injuries have provided a consistent backdrop to the season, with up to 11 stars sat out of matches in recent weeks. Indeed, long-term casualties Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidić will not play again this season, but Ferguson is close to bringing midfielder Tom Cleverley back into the fold.

Chelsea verus Manchester United, Premier League, Stamford Bridge, 5 February 2012, 4pm.But it is the defensive unit that the Scot will be most satisfied with. While Fábio da Silva remains on the sidelines, brother Rafael will compete with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones for a slot at right-back in Ferguson’s side. Indeed, with Rio Ferdinand fit, Ferguson can boast more defensive options than at almost any point this season.

“We’re a bit better in terms of injuries,” Ferguson confirmed on Friday.

“We hope Wayne Rooney, Nani, Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young will all be in the squad. It’s more likely Tom will play against Chelsea Reserves on Monday, but he’ll travel. Rooney and Nani have trained for the last two days.

“When Ashley got his injury at Fulham it was just at a point when his game was starting to shade a little bit because his early form was fantastic and we were really pleased with him. But there was just a couple of games before his injury when it looked as if we were ready to give him a break anyway. It was an enforced one and he is really fresh now. His training performances for the last two weeks have been really good.

“It is good to have players back because we have, in fairness to the players who have been carrying the burden of limited resources, done fantastically well. The only pressure when you get your full squad is on me picking the team now. That is the biggest pressure when you get them all back, who do you play and who do you leave out? It is not going to be easy.”

Much criticised goalkeeper David de Gea is likely to return between the posts after overcoming a heavy cold. Dane Anders Lindegaard is set to miss six weeks after turning his ankle in training, meaning an extended run in the side for young Spaniard de Gea. And Ferguson this week hit back at critics of the 21-year-old stopper, who was singled-out by some pundits for his part in Liverpool’s opening goal last weekend.

“When you make a mistake at United, it is highlighted and can be exaggerated a little bit,” said Ferguson.

“They are mistakes and he wants to address it himself. He will do so through maturity and the understanding of the English game. That is not easy. It is harder when you are replacing Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel. They are probably two of the greatest goalkeepers in European football over the last 40 years. I found it difficult to replace them. That’s why we went for a young replacement, who would develop and mature into the position because the potential is there.”

For the second time in a week United’s game will be played amid the backdrop of racism. United, and especially Patrice Evra, faced a partizan Anfield crowd in the FA Cup last weekend following Luis Suárez’ racial abuse of the United defender. Meanwhile, at Stamford Bridge, much of the pre-match talk has centered on John Terry, the Chelsea captain now stripped of a similar honour with England. Terry will face a July court date after being accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.

However, with Terry still on the sidelines through injury, Anton’s brother Rio will not have to face the dubious prospect of shaking Terry’s hand pre-match – a diplomatic incident few bar those in the fourth estate would enjoy. Terry’s absence almost certainly means a début for England defender Gary Cahill, signed from Bolton Wanderers for £7 million during the winter transfer window.

Left-back Ashley Cole also misses out after being dismissed against Swansea in midweek, while Didier Drogba is still away at the Africa Cup of Nations. Manager Jose Villas-Boas will choose between Frank Lampard and the returning Michael Essien in midfield.

Despite the high-profile absentees Chelsea has history on side for this particular fixture. The Londoners are unbeaten in the last nine home league games against United, since a 3-0 defeat nearly ten years ago. Although Ferguson’s side has rarely enjoyed the rub of the green in that time, the Scot’s side has scored only three times in the past eight matches at Stamford Bridge.

United did, of course, emerge victorious in last season’s Champions League quarter-final, with Rooney scoring the only goal of the match.

However, Ferguson’s side boasts the best away record of any top-flight side – a remarkable turnaround from last season’s tortuous form on the road. And in Antonio Valencia Ferguson will also call on the league’s most in-form player. The Ecuadorian winger has provided nine assists in as many games.

Yet, it will still take a significant improvement in United’s form to close the gap on City this weekend. Following last weekend’s FA Cup loss to Liverpool, United beat Stoke City in midweek. That may have been a routine victory on paper, but the 2-0 win came after the Reds’ managed just two strikes on target – both penalties.

Match details
Chelsea verus Manchester United, Premier League, Stamford Bridge, 5 February 2012, 4pm.

Potential Line-ups
Chelsea: (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz, Bosingwa; Romeu, Meireles, Lampard; Mata, Torres, Sturridge. Subs from: Turnbull, Essien, Malouda, Ferreira, Piazon, Lukaku.

United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Nani; Rooney, Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Kuszazck, Rafael, Jones, Fryers, Cole, Giggs, Park, Pogba, Hernández, Berbatov.

Performance Stats

  • Chelsea could only take a point away from the side’s last Premier League game against Swansea City. Jose Bosingwa’s shot was going off target before Joe Allen deflected it in for Chelsea to equalise;
  • Juan Mata covered the most ground for Chelsea in that game with 6.58 miles
  • Bosingwa has won 72 per cent of tackles attempted this season, has made 44 interceptions, and delivered 47 crosses, while making three assists;
  • Chelsea striker Fernando Torres may be struggling in front of goal, but his work rate is paying dividends for the team. The striker has attempted 38 tackles so far this season, the seventh highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • United scored two penalties to beat Stoke 2-0 on Tuesday night, with Michael Carrick coveringt he most ground – 6.65 miles – for the Reds in the game;
  • Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov each scored their seventh goals of the season from the spot after fouls on Ji Sung Park and Valencia;
  • Berbatov’s goals have come from 14 attempts at goal, while Hernandez’ have come from 27 attempts;
  • Park covered 6.36 miles in the game, behind only top runner Michael Carrick. Park has two goals and three assists to his name this season, and has also completed a pass in his opponent’s half every three minutes 40 seconds.

Form
Chelsea: WWWDWD
United: LWWWLW

Officials
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)
Assistants: D Cann, M McDonough
Fourth Official: P Dowd

Reds to capitalise on Chelsea blues

September 18, 2011 Tags: , Matches 138 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson reports no fresh injury concerns ahead of Manchester United’s fixture with Chelsea to Old Trafford this Sunday, in a match billed both as a clash of generations and a marker for the new season. Now in his 26th year at Old Trafford, 69-year-old Ferguson stands in marked contrast to his callow opposite number, André Villas-Boas, the 33-year-old Portuguese who won the treble with Porto last season. Yet, each is desperate to gain early ground in the Premier League title race.

Aside from from the clash of personalities the fixture will serve as a barometer for Chelsea’s challenge this season. In contrast to swashbuckling United performances in the Premier League, Chelsea’s pedestrian start – despite four wins in five – has brought both media and internal criticism, with striker Fernando Torres complaining of his team-mates’ sedentary pace. Hardly surprising given the ageing nature of Chelsea’s squad and the frustration that the 27-year-old Torres must feel. One goal in 22 for his new club gives the Spaniard little ammunition for criticism though.

But, says Ferguson, despite the ageing legs and in-fighting at the west London outfit, Chelsea will pose a significant threat to The Reds’ title ambitions this season. Indeed, Chelsea is the only side to boast a positive head-to-head record against United in the Premier League era.

“It will be a fantastic game,” Ferguson told reporters on Friday.

“The games with Chelsea over the last seven years have been very close affairs. There’s usually only one goal in it and I think it will be tight again on Sunday. They’re a team with great experience and they’ll pose a challenge to us. Chelsea will be there at the end of the season. There’s no doubt about that.”

With United having beaten Chelsea three times last season the Reds start as favourites at Old Trafford but it is the contrast with the Premier League’s youngest manager that fascinates. Indeed, Ferguson drew parallels with his own start at United, having been successful at a young age in Scotland. The difference, of course, being that the young Ferguson had more than a decade in management before signing on at Old Trafford.

“It’s similar to when I came from Aberdeen, I’d achieved something,” added Ferguson, who won the European Cup Winners’ Cup with The Scottish club and broke the Auld Firm duopoly.

“André Villas-Boas won the Double last year so that’s a help. That stands him in good stead in terms of the start of his tenure at Chelsea. After that, the impression that the players get from him in terms of his knowledge of the game and man-management skills, that’s all in the future. The new coach has started very well. It’s a hard challenge at his age but he’s acquitted himself very well and his team have responded, which is what you hope for as a new manager at a club.”

Manchester United v Chelsea, Premier League, Old Trafford, 4pm 18 September 2011Ferguson will be able to call on an almost fully fit squad for the tie, save for injured quartet Rafael da Silva, Nemanja Vidic, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley. The latter pair is a significant loss, with the youngsters having started the season in such exhilarating fashion. Cleverley is likely to miss the next three weeks but Welbeck is well ahead of schedule and has begun training with the first team once again. The injuries should mean both Javer Hernández and Michael Carrick start at Old Trafford on Sunday.

“We came through the Benfica game without any injuries,” added Sir Alex.

“We have a full squad for Sunday. They’re all giving me headaches. Darren Fletcher, Ji-sung Park, Antonio Valencia, they’ve not been involved because the team have been playing so well. I’ve decided not to tinker with that. But now we come to the time of the season where we need our squad – we’ve got European games, Carling Cup etc. Danny Welbeck’s back training now. He could maybe be ready for the following week [at Stoke].”

In Cleverley’s stead the oft-criticised Carrick will start his first Premier League game of the season. The 30-year-old Geordie is likely to be paired with a rejuvenated Anderson, who is enjoying his best start to a campaign after four years at Old Trafford.

The creative burden, from central areas at least, is again likely to fall on Rooney, who will resume his partnership with Hernández at Old Trafford after the Mexican sat out United’s bore draw with Benfica on Wednesday night. Rooney’s stunning early season form has brought 10 goals in six games for club and country, including successive hat-tricks. Should the England forward score twice against Chelsea he will become the first player to reach double figures after five games of a Premier League season.

Rooney bills the tie with Chelsea as United’s biggest test of the season to date, after the Reds conjured up comfortable wins against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.

“Obviously Arsenal are always difficult but with the injuries they had when they came to Old Trafford we were the favourites to win that one,” the striker told ManUtd.com

“The Chelsea game’s going to be difficult and we need to be at our best. They’ve got a few new players – I saw Daniel Sturridge started the last game and Juan Mata played as well. I’m sure they’ll have a few new ideas to go along with the new signings they have, but I’ sure we’ll be able to cope with that. This is going to be another big game and if we can win we’ll go five points clear of Chelsea and keep our winning run going at the start of the season.”

Meanwhile, Villas-Boas will be without striker Didier Drogba, who is still on the sidelines following an early season concussion. It is unlikely to save Torres’ place in the side with Nicolas Anelka set to start. Influential midfielder Michael Essien is unlikely to return before February with another serious knee injury.

Yet, Villas-Boas has attempted to play down the fixture’s importance in the season, despite the five point advantage that victory for United will bring.

“Our importance in the game is minimal. It’s for the players to exploit their talents and enjoy their game,” said the 33-year-old.

“We face Man United perhaps in their most tremendous moment of motivation and flair and style and a team that has made its impact at the beginning of the Premiership, different from last year. It provokes a good challenge and I think motivation will be the key factor in the game and hopefully (we can) come back from Old Trafford with a win.”

Chelsea has won five times at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, more often than any other team. Few expect the Londoners to repeat the feat on Sunday.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Chelsea, Premier League, Old Trafford, 4pm, 18 September 2011.

Likely Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Jones, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evans, Giggs, Evans, Fletcher, Pogba, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov.

Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Bosingwa, Luiz, Alex, Cole; Ramires, Meireles, Lampard; Mata, Anelka, Sturridge. Subs from: Hilario, Ferreira, Malouda, McEachran, Mikel, Kalou, Torres, Romeu

Form
United: WWWWD
Chelsea: DWWWW

Referee
Referee: Phil Dowd (Slovenia)

Title 19 within touching distance; this one is Fergie’s triumph

May 10, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 49 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are now within a single point of a 19th domestic title after beating Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday. It was the fourth occasion the Reds have beaten Carlo Ancelotti’s Londoners this season, if any further proof was needed of the United’s superiority. If Chelsea’s players had talked up their title possibilities ahead of the match, then there was little doubt about the result just 36 seconds into the tie after Javier Hernández’ superb opener. Around two hours later and United had sealed the win that brings the Premier League title to within a draw at Blackburn Rovers next weekend.

Despite Chelsea’s late goal there never seemed any doubt about the result. United was everything Ferguson’s team had been missing against Arsenal last week; dynamic, energetic and inventive. It is if a switch is thrown whenever the Theatre of Dreams is in sight. Old Trafford’s Dr. Jekyll to the road’s Mr Hyde, to bastardise a popular novella.

In a season that threatened mediocrity at its outset United will achieve more than so many pundits – and let’s be honest, supporters – ever expected. Truly now greater than the sum of its parts, United will finish as Premier League champions with a very real chance of beating an, albeit superior, Barcelona side in a one-off showpiece final. It would be a remarkable double.

While the players must take credit for their part the real hero, as history must record, is Ferguson, who has dragged from his limited playing squad results that so few expected.

“Knowing the players they won’t muck it up,” said Ferguson after United’s victory on Sunday.

“They will get a point there’s no doubt about that. It’s fantastic to be the most successful team in the country. The minute we won that first title in 1992 the door opened, and we’ve been involved in the first two all throughout that period – it’s a fantastic achievement.

“For the last 17 or 18 years it’s been Arsenal and Chelsea as our nearest challengers, and the last few years it’s been Chelsea. Arsenal made a great attempt this year but them losing [at Stoke] has finalised it.

“It took time to get foundations of club right and after we got the first title we improved, improved and improved.”

Ferguson is right to crow, although in truth he has commanded far superior teams in his 25 years at Old Trafford. After all, while it is unfair to say the ‘least worst’ team has emerged victorious this season there is some truth to it. With United in transition and Chelsea ageing, Arsenal’s obstinate manager Arsène Wenger will surely look back on an opportunity lost. Money is available at the Emirates and the Frenchman’s decision not to spend it on a goalkeeper, central defender and experienced tough-tackling midfielder has cost his side dearly.

Rivals’ failure is United’s gain and Ferguson believes United is well served for the decade ahead. It promises to be an interesting summer, with fans once again wondering if the United manager will build from a position of strength. Ferguson is again minded to trust in youth.

“Over the last decade, we’ve worked upon bringing young talent into the club, like, Wayne Rooney, ‘Chicharito’, Anderson and Nani, and we’ve brought all these players,” added Ferguson.

“But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that we like to produce our own young players and I think there are several players in the present youth team who are doing really well.

“The likes of Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison, you see some of them doing very, very well, so we’re always going to put an emphasis on young players coming through from the youth team. That will always be the case.

“We’ve got some excellent young players of good ages, you know. Like, for instance, Chicharito, who is 22, Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson, who are 23, and Chris Smalling who’s 21.

“So, yeah, we’ve got a good nucleus of young players in the club which gives you the foundation to be able to protect the future and know it’s going to be alright.”

The temptation is to dismiss Ferguson’s comments as a segue into another summer of investment in players who ‘retain a significant transfer value’; the club’s policy of only buying young players who can be sold at profit in the future. Indeed, this may well be the case although Ferguson will surely want to replace Edwin van der Sar, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes at a minimum.

However, winning the Premier League vindicates Ferguson’s summer transfer policy whatever happens in the Champions League final. This side has already over-achieved, with Hernández and Chris Smalling particularly successful. Meanwhile, Rafael da Silva has emerged as a genuinely classy right-back, with his brother arguably even more reliable in the position during the final weeks of the season. The less said about Bébé, the better for all concerned.

Ferguson will move on from title win 19 quickly though, looking to the next great challenge. And while United is stocked with some outstanding youngsters history dictates that only a fraction will make it at the club. United’s success, or failure, next season will again be determined by choices made during the summer.

With Manchester City and Chelsea set to throw cash at the problem, Wenger more recalcitrant than ever about his own transfer policy and Liverpool resurgent, title 20 will be harder than ever to achieve.

But that question is for another day. For now, Ferguson can rightly bask in the glory of his achievements.

United v Chelsea: key battles

May 8, 2011 Tags: , Matches 38 comments

Sunday’s clash with Chelsea at Old Trafford is, essentially, a title decider. At least for the Londoners, for whom defeat will surely end all hope of retaining the Premier League. Having already faced each other four times this season, twice in Europe, the Community Shield and at Stamford Bridge, there is little the teams do not already know about each other. And as so often in clashes of this magnitude it is the details that will decide the outcome; the one-on-one battles that will turn the title race in Chelsea’s favour or a seal a 19th domestic championship for United.

Didier Drogba v Nemanja Vidic
The United captain’s problems with Fernando Torres have been always been overstated but with the Spaniard in poor form it is unlikely the £50 million striker will have the opportunity to repeat the trick. Instead, with Ancelotti having restored the Chelsea players’ preferred 4-3-3 formation Vidic must snuff out the considerably more dangerous Drogba, if the Ivorian can be bothered, of course. Drogba’s performances have not reached the heights of previous campaigns, not aided by a dose of malaria, evidenced by just 11 Premier League goals this season. But the 33-year-old still has the power to win matches on his own.

Frank Lampard v Michael Carrick
The Geordie’s inability to deal with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey at the Emirates last weekend cost United dearly, with Ferguson’s side losing possession and territory in midfield. Tiredness perhaps but Carrick returned to the lethargic performances of the past two seasons against Arsenal and United cannot afford a similar performance on Sunday. Yet Carrick will perform a crucial role screening Lampard’s runs from deep and recycling possession to ensure United win the midfield battle at Old Trafford. Carrick is not a natural destroyer but alongside Ryan Giggs, the former Tottenham Hotspur player played a central role in United’s victory over Chelsea in the Champions League this season.

Antonio Valencia v Ashley Cole
The Ecuadorian’s role during United’s run-in has been remarkable given the serious nature of the broken ankle suffered in September. Valencia has not only returned to fitness, but supplanted Nani in the United side, with the 24-year-old former Wigan Athletic winger likely to start against Chelsea on Sunday. Valencia’s no-nonsense style, defensive discipline and pace have made him both a fan-favourite and Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred choice on the right-wing. But in Ashley Cole, Valencia faces one of Europe’s finest left-backs. It will prove a crucial personal duel that Valencia needs to win if United is to negate the threat down Chelsea’s left flank.

Wayne Rooney v John Obi Mikel
Rooney’s spring renaissance has coincided with a return to the ‘number 10′ position of the player’s youth, offering the former Evertonian freedom and reducing the player’s goalscoring burden. The player’s influence from a deeper position was in evidence during the recent Champions League matches between the sides where Rooney not only provided United’s creative heartbeat but augmented United’s central midfield when defending. With Chelsea likely to play three central midfielders at Old Trafford Rooney will again be required deep, to ensure United is not outnumbered in the engine room and to cut off the supply to Mikel who is the catalyst for the Londoners’ attacking play.

Javier Hernández v David Luiz
Luiz’ pace is a crucial compliment to John Terry in the heart of Chelsea’s central defence. The restored England captain is neither the quickest over the ground nor, if his positional sense is anything to go by, up top but Luiz has added an extra dimension to Chelsea’s defence since a £25 million January transfer. The Brazilian is seemingly a foul waiting to happen but, perhaps tellingly, Hernández had far less success against the former Benfica man in the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge than in the recent European games.

Sir Alex Ferguson v Carlo Ancelotti
Will United retain the 4-4-1-1 formation that proved Chelsea’s undoing in the Champions League? Will Ancelotti keep the 4-4-2 that prove so unsuccessful in the same series of matches? It is possible each will change, with Ancelotti using a three man attack in recent domestic matches, while Ferguson may be tempted to augment United’s midfield and deploy Rooney in a lone front man role. As ever, the game will be decided on the minor details, where substitutions will play a key role. While Ancelotti is likely to keep Torres in reserve, Ferguson can call on Dimitar Berbatov, still the Premier League’s top goalscorer.

Howard Webb v Everbody
The common perception that Webb favours United is based, largely, on the penalty the former police officer gave against Tottenham Hotspur in April 2009. While the foul by Heurelho Gomes on Michael Carrick was preceded by a flick of the ball, the ‘keeper took man and ball, which is, by any definition, a penalty. Add in the failure to dismiss Spurs’ Wilson Palacios for a two-footed lunge in the same game and Webb’s contribution appears markedly less ‘pro-United’. Then there’s the bizarre dismissal of Cristiano Ronaldo against Manchester City in November 2008, where the Portuguese was shown red for deliberate handball. The winger batted the ball to the floor, volleyball-style, having seemingly been pushed in the back. Moreover, the official has never given a penalty against Chelsea. It’s a picture rarely painted by the mainstream media.

Ferguson banks on home form to maintain Reds’ title advantage

May 7, 2011 Tags: , Matches 125 comments

Sunday’s match against Chelsea may not earn Manchester United the Premier League title but victory will take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to within a whisker of a 19th domestic championship. It is a prize that came sharply into focus this week, with the 69-year-old Scot resting key players during United’s Champions League semi-final defeat of Schlake. Wednesday’s 4-1 win, taking United to Wembley on a 6-1 aggregate scoreline, has provided Ferguson’s squad with a welcome tonic ahead of Chelsea’s visit. Not that United’s manager had any doubts about his team’s performances at Old Trafford, claiming that the Reds’ home form is the best in Europe.

Despite overwhelming margin of victory Ferguson will make substantial changes to the side that beat the former German champions this week, with up to seven players returning. Indeed, United’s manager effectively gambled the Reds’ progression in Europe to ensure his troops do not suffer the fatigue that so affected last week’s performance against Arsenal.

“Our home record is probably the best in Europe,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“It is the reason we are there. Some of the performances at home this season have been absolutely terrific. Hopefully it will get us the result we want on Sunday because this is a big game. If we win, we should win the league.

“Everyone is aware of the magnitude of Sunday’s game. It is one of the reasons why I picked the team I did on Wednesday. I wanted to give us a real chance. We will have a fresh team and that makes a difference at this time of the season.”

Yet Chelsea arrive in Manchester, site of defeat in the Champions League last month, in outstanding domestic form. Elimination from Europe’s premier competition has precipitated a run gaining the Londoners 25 points from a potential 27. Coupled with United dropping points at Anfield, St James’ Park and the Emirates recently, victory for Carlo Ancelotti’s men will take Chelsea to the head of the Premier League table.

It is a scenario, says Ferguson, enabled by United’s loss to Chelsea in the Premier League in March, where referee Martin Atkinson’s performance drew a stinging rebuke from the Scot.

“That result was the change for them,” added Ferguson, whose criticism of Atkinson earned a five-match touchline ban.

“We all know the circumstances of that game and I don’t need to get into that. But the outcome gave them a lift. They were out of the game and they had won it. But we always said it is a very difficult league. The Premier League is hard to win. We know because we have been involved in the championship races for 19 years.”

Manchester United v Chelsea, Premier League, Old Trafford, 7 May 2011Captain Nemanja Vidic returns to lead the side, alongside Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs and Ji-Sung Park. Despite the positive performances from Brazilian midfielder Anderson and the much maligned Darron Gibson in midweek neither is likely to make Ferguson’s starting line-up. The same is true of Darren Fletcher, of whom Ferguson has high hopes for the Champions League final in three weeks, but he should make the bench against Chelsea.

Indeed, Ferguson’s principal decision rests on whether to maintain the 4-4-1-1 shape that proved so effective against Chelsea in Europe, or augment United’s midfield against Ancelotti’s newly rediscovered three-man engine room.

That United does not need to chase victory may prove decisive. However, it is a selection poser for which the Scot is providing few clues, claiming only that United will not play for a draw.

“I have no idea what to expect from Chelsea,” added Ferguson, whose team has allowed a 15 point Premier League lead to slip in the past two months.

“I was at their game last week and couldn’t get anything from that. Drogba played the whole game so you would expect him definitely to play. But he started off wide right, then Torres went there. Whether they start with both of them on Sunday is difficult to say. But no matter what they do, we have the players to handle it.”

Chelsea manager Ancelotti must choose whether to field both Didier Drogba and £50 million striker Fernando Torres, who was so ineffectual during the recent Champions League encounters. However, David Luiz is available for the Premier League match after missing the European games due to ineligibility.

Luiz was a key figure when Chelsea beat United 2-1 at Stamford bridge in March, scoring the winning goal. Indeed, the Londoners have won the last three Premier League encounters between the sides, including a controversial victory during last season’s title run in.

Yet, it is to the recent European ties that United will turn. Victory home and away in the Champions League will give the Reds a psychological edge, claims winger Nani.

“The most important game now is Chelsea not Barcelona. It will be very difficult. But we are at home and we have had good experiences against them,” said winger Nani, who may well return to the bench for Chelsea’s visit.

“We know if we want to win the game we have to play with confidence. The results against them in the Champions League were very good. I think that gives us the psychological advantage. We just have to concentrate on our football and winning the game. If we do that then everything will be fine.

“If we win this one then it is a great advantage for us. It is nearly over then. We have a great chance.”

And with United having taken 49 of 51 potential points at home this season, it is a message that United supporters can rally round. Only West Bromwich Albion has emerged with anything from Old Trafford in the Premier League; unless Chelsea can improve on that result the title is surely United’s.

Match Facts
Premier League. Old Trafford, London, 7 May 20011, 4.00pm.

Teams
United – 4411 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Fabio da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Giggs, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson.

Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Lampard, Essien; Kalou, Drogba, Malouda. Subs from: Hilário, Turnbull, Ramires, Torres, Benayoun, Zhirkov, Ferreira, Alex, Bertrand, Anelka, McEachran

Officials
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant referees: Darren Cann & Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Phil Dowd

Form
United – LDWWLW
Chelsea – WLWWWW

Destiny still in Reds’ hands

May 3, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 11 comments

Recriminations over the weekend’s defeat to Arsenal, coupled with Chelsea’s fortuitous win over Tottenham Hotspur the previous day, may not be forgotten but Manchester United is still master of its own destiny on European and domestic fronts. No matter the conjecture emanating from Stamford Bridge, seven points in Manchester United’s three remaining Premier League matches will seal the title for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.

The question is whether a one-off match against Chelsea at Old Trafford will bring out the best in Ferguson’s outfit, as seen recently witnessed against the Londoners and Schalke in European competition. Indeed, Saturday’s defeat in north London owed much to United retreating from the fluid football of recent weeks, returning it seemed to the negativity that marked the Reds’ early season away performances.

Yet, at home United’s mentality is very different, where Ferguson’s outfit has won 16 of 17 fixtures in the Premier League and scored an astonishing 43 goals – a total significantly higher than any other side at home this season. Call it the ‘United way’, call it an attacking philosophy, but there is a strong suspicion that the Premier League title is the Reds’ to lose but only if the timidity seen away from Old Trafford is transported to home turf.

“We have our destiny in our hands. We have a massive game against Chelsea. If we want to win the title then we have to beat Chelsea – it’s as simple as that. If we don’t beat them then we’ll be in trouble,” says left-back Patrice Evra.

“We just need to play the Man United way. I am not worried because we know we didn’t do the things we normally do against Arsenal. We have three games left and need to win every game. Every game is a final.”

“We didn’t feel in trouble. We knew how Arsenal would play. They kept possession of the ball but never looked dangerous. Normally when we visit the Emirates we play with speed, power and aggression, and create more chances than we did on Sunday. That is why I am very disappointed.

“There were some difficult decisions but I don’t want to talk about the referee, the problem was Man United, not the referee. It is easy to find some excuse. We did not play the Man United way and when we don’t play the Man United way, we don’t deserve anything.”

The dilemma for Ferguson is whether to set his team up to play on the front foot against last season’s champions on Sunday. The equation is, of course, black and white for supporters; the United way is to attack from the opening whistle. One suspects there are greater nuances for Ferguson though, who is surely confident that his team will beat Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool in United’s final two Premier League matches.

Chelsea, meanwhile, must win at Old Trafford with tricky matches first at home to Newcastle United and then away at Everton to come. The longer United keeps the match tight against Chelsea the more likely the Londoners will be vulnerable to the counter-attack.

Yet, says striker Javier Hernández, United is expected to play for the win. Always.

“Giggs and Scholes tell us that we need to play like Manchester United players, always remembering the club’s rich history and never giving less than 100 per cent on the field,” Mexican striker Hernández told Inside United this week.

“Being a United player is about winning – you can never think about drawing or losing games. It’s that attitude that can help us to win trophies. We need to avoid silly errors to give ourselves the best chance of winning, and to play every game like it’s our last one.”

Yet, the focus among supporters at least is firmlyon United’s match with Chelsea on Sunday. If that picture is mirroed in Ferguson’s squad, there is a very real risk that the Scot’s players will take their eye off Wednesday night’s return with Schalke. After all, although the Reds are two goals to the good, Schalke scored five against Inter in Milan during the quarter-final rout.

Moreover, with Ferguson planning to rest Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Hernández there is a very real risk that United will hand Schalke the momentum on Wednesday. It is a risk Ferguson believes is worth taking against a side United so comfortably defeated beat last week.

“If you look at the experience of last year when we lost the league, the team were very tired against Chelsea after playing Bayern Munich on the Wednesday,” Ferguson told the media on Tuesday.

“That will have a bearing on my team selection. We’ve got two massive games, both as important as the other. There will be some changes (against Schalke). Hopefully the nucleus of the team is still good enough to win.

“The interesting thing about last weekend was that the four (Champions League semi-final) teams all lost (league matches). So European games do take it out of you. I have to pick the right team tomorrow in order to have the same kind of freshness I need for Sunday’s match.”

It is a gamble Ferguson makes in the knowledge that Schalke must score three times at Old Trafford without reply to deny United a place in the 28 May final against Barcelona. Yet, defeat to Schalke – possible against a team that under-performed at home – will take further wind out of United’s sails, even if Ferguson’s side makes the final.

After all momentum at this stage of the season is key. It is perhaps why now, more than any other, Ferguson’s side must revert to the positivity that has brought the best out of his side this season.

Destiny, as Evra says, is still in the Reds’ hands.

Fergie questions officials as title comes down to Chelsea tie

May 1, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 27 comments

There is little doubt that Manchester United was denied a clear penalty with less that five minutes remaining at the Emirates on Sunday but in truth Sir Alex Ferguson’s reverted to type in defeat away from Old Trafford. Ferguson’s side was everything witnessed so often on the road this season: timid, lacklustre and above all, outclassed in midfield. Worse still, there was none of the adventure or creativity displayed at the Veltins Arena last Tuesday as United went down to an Arsenal side essentially playing for nothing but pride.

The frustration was tantamount in the United camp as referee Chris Foy missed Gael Clichy’s clear foul on Michael Owen with minutes remaining. Ferguson’s anger was compounded too, with Patrice Evra denied another good shout for a spot kick in the 68th minute after Bacary Sanga appeared to drag down his fellow countryman.

In truth Arsenal can also point a handball by Nemanja Vidic early in the piece that was also missed by the Merseyside official, although the Serbian’s touch was so fine that perhaps only Robin van Persie could have seen the infringement. Owen’s claim was none of the sort, with Foy well positioned to make what could prove a decisive moment in the Premier League title race.

It was almost too much for Ferguson to take post-match – the Scot did well not to incur further FA wrath after recently serving a five-match touchline ban for criticising officials.

“It’s too big a game not to get the decisions right,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“It balances out in that respect but I think it was difficult to see that one [Vidic’s handball] but the one at the end, Clichy knew, he put his hands up in horror. Obviously, it gives Chelsea a major chance now and that’s what happens when you get these decisions. They got one at Old Trafford last season so that’s the worry now. But in terms of ability – a game at Old Trafford, the supporters will be ready for it – and so will our players.”

Ferguson’s thinly veiled reference to Chelsea’s good fortune on Saturday, when the west London club were awarded two goals that should never have been against Tottenham Hotspur, is pertinent. Last season’s title charge was greatly altered by Didier Drogba’s winning goal at Old Trafford, scored from an offside position. Moreover, prior to United’s Champions League quarter-final win over the Londoners had enjoyed a series of refereeing decisions that irked Ferguson.

All that is now required to solidify the Scot’s paranoia is for the Premier League to appoint Martin Atkinson to take charge of next weekend’s key fixture. The official appointment is likely to be announced on Tuesday, ahead of United’s Champions League second-leg fixture with Schalke.

However, while Ferguson is a master at exerting pressure on whomever takes charge of next Sunday’s tie, the Scot will surely banish all negative thoughts from the United camp ahead of the match. Win or draw against last season’s champions and United will surely take a 19th domestic title. Lose and the title’s destiny will be outside United’s control for the first time in weeks. United can only countenance the former.

Indeed, with an identical goal difference, a Chelsea victory at Old Trafford will provoke a two-match shoot out to clinch the title. United versus Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool; Chelsea against Newcastle United and Everton.

That is for the coming weeks though. Ahead of the Chelsea tie United must play in Europe with the Londoners facing nothing more strenuous than a week’s light training at Cobham. The freshness should hand a distinct advantage to next weekend’s visitors, although Ferguson will rest key forward players for the Schalke tie.

“We have a big week ahead,” said Ferguson.

“Wednesday is a European semi-final second leg and then the game on Sunday [against Chelsea], so two massive games. We will regroup and freshen it up.

“I will make some changes on Wednesday without question. I will bring Paul Scholes back in, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen. We’ll need to do that but I will probably keep my experienced players at the back.

“We are in as good a position as you could ever wish for at the start of the season – semi-final of the European Cup, second leg, two-goal lead and go into a home game on Sunday level on goal difference [and with a three-point advantage].”

United’s good position both at home and in Europe could be undone inside the next six days though. And Ferguson is fortunate that three of the coming key games are at Old Trafford, with only the Blackburn game on the road. Given United’s horrendous form away from Manchester, where Ferguson’s side has won just five times in the Premier League, the fixture list is but a small mercy.

Until Wednesday the United squad will have much to ponder in tamely losing at the Emirates, whatever the poor officiating. And then it is to the two recent European games against Chelsea that United must turn, where the Reds’ positive intent drew high dividends.

Those games were everything Sunday at the Emirates was not.

Fergie determined to end Chelsea ‘obsession’

April 12, 2011 Tags: , Matches 251 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has dismissed Roman Abramovich’s “obsession” with winning the Champions League, reiterating that his Manchester United side is just as desperate to secure Europe’s premier competition this season. Speaking ahead of the quarter-final second leg clash at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, Ferguson claimed that the British press is “running away with sympathy for Chelsea,” with the Londoners’ only realistic chance of silverware now coming in Europe.

It’s a notion for which Ferguson holds much contempt and the 69-year-old United manager is determined that his side maintains a recent winning run, having beaten West Ham United, Chelsea and Fulham in the past 10 days and won the last six in succession.

However, Ferguson is likely to make significant chances to the side that overcame Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday. Wayne Rooney returns from a domestic suspension, while Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and Ryan Giggs could both come back into the side. The Scot could even pick the same starting 11 that beat Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge a week ago.

“Momentum is key: it’s what keeps you from going off your stride,” Ferguson said on Monday.

“Every game from this point on is like a cup final – the players thrive on that. In that respect I see similarities to 1999, but the circumstances are completely different as we didn’t have any injuries back then.

“We’ve coped very well this season, particularly with the injuries we’ve had in defensive positions. Having the likes of Anderson, Rio [Ferdinand], and [Antonio] Valencia back makes an incredible difference at this time of the season. They’re fresh and they know how to play for the club, so it’s not like signing new players as they don’t need time to adapt.”

Ferguson must decide whether to bring Portuguese winger Nani back into his side despite Antonio Valencia’s outstanding form since the Ecuadorian’s return from injury. Although the Scot could stand down Park Ji-Sung the United manager is apt to pick the South Korean on European nights.

Manchester United v Chelsea, Old Trafford, 12th April 2011The same cannot be said of Dimitar Berbatov of course and the Bulgarian’s tepid display against Fulham will have done his chances of making tonight’s side few favours. Although Javier Hernández has made little impact in the two matches started against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this season, Ferguson clearly trusts the 22-year-old Mexican as a man for the big occasions.

And another striker, Chelsea’s £50 million Fernando Torres, is a symptom of Chelsea’s European obsession, says Ferguson. Torres started in preference to Nicolas Anelka last Wednesday but sat out Chelsea’s weekend Premier League match against Wigan Athletic.

“It does seem to be an obsession with Chelsea to win the European Cup. That is why they signed Fernando Torres,” added the Scot.

“The owner has every much nailed his colours to the mast in that respect. I have felt that for quite a while with him. To have an obsession of winning the European Cup is stretching yourself a wee bit. At the end of the day it is a very difficult competition to win. All the best teams are there. You see the form of Barcelona at the moment – it’s fantastic.

“I had that obsession myself for a long time. Losing the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund [in 1997], I thought we were never going to do it.”

Another long derided forward, Rooney, will return to Ferguson’s team having completed one of a two match suspension for using “foul and abusive” language in United’s win at the Boleyn Ground recently. Indeed, the six-day break since Rooney scored against Chelsea in the first leg has enabled to striker to recharge his batteries, according to Ferguson.

“He will definitely be fresher after missing the game [against Fulham] on Saturday,” Ferguson said.

“That has given him six days’ good preparation and that could make a difference. In the first leg, Wayne Rooney adapted very well to the role we asked him to play. He had to combine partly defensive duties but with an attacking thrust, so in that respect he did very well and of course he put in a good performance.

“He is capable of causing problems no one else can. Balance, power, speed and a great tactical brain – the boy’s got everything.”

Meanwhile, Chelsea manager Ancelotti will choose two of Torres, Anelka and Didier Drogba, with the significant possibility that the Italian will accommodate an additional midfielder away from home. Despite playing without a traditional defensive central midfielder at Stamford Bridge last week – Michael Carrick and Giggs started – United dominated midfield, as Ferguson’s side had done in the Premier League encounter for 45 minutes.

The change might mean leaving Torres on the bench – a decision that might not go down well with owner Abramovich. However, Ancelotti can boast a fully-fit squad, with Yossi Benayoun and Alex returning to the side at the weekend. The Brazilian may start with fellow countryman David Luiz not eligible for the tie.

And Chelsea will have no fears at Old Trafford adds Ferguson, with familiarity an advantage non-domestic teams that normally visit Manchester on big these European nights.

“A British team coming here is different to a European team,” the Scot admitted.

“Although Juventus and Milan, over the years, have played here a few times. For Chelsea, they are here every year. There’s a familiarity with the stadium, the size of the pitch, the conditions of the pitch. All these things are in their favour compared with other European teams.”

It’s an advantage Ferguson hopes will not be significant with United looking for the draw or better than will secure passage through to the Champions League semi-final for the third time in the past four years. Indeed, with Schalke the likely opponents in the next round both teams will have one eye on a final. It would be United’s third since 2008. An obsession you might say.

Opposition
Chelsea – 433 – Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard; Anleka, Drogba, Malouda. Subs from: Turnbull, Benayoun, Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira, Kalou, Anelka, Bosingwa, Zhirkov, Torres.

United
United – 433 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Scholes, Berbatov, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Smalling, Gibson, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, NaniKing, Anderson.

Officials
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP)
Assistant referees: Fermin Martinez Ibanez, Juan Carlos Yuste Jiménez
Additional assistant referees: Fernando Teixeira Vitienes, Carlos Clos Gómez
Fourth official: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP)

Form
United – WWWWWW
Chelsea – WDWDLW

Rio returns as Fergie backs strikers for Euro glory

April 6, 2011 Tags: , Matches 213 comments

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is backing his strikeforce to fire the Reds into the Champions League semi-final. While the 69-year-old Scot is seemingly unlikely to deploy Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández at Stamford Bridge tonight, the trio has now scored 50 goals between them this season. It’s the kind of firepower that took United to the treble in 1999, with Ferguson this week evoking memories of the club’s glory 12 seasons ago.

Ferguson, who says his forwards has covered up for deficiencies in United’s defence recently, is also boosted by the return of key defenders Rafael da Silva and Rio Ferdinand. The Brazilian youngster is certain to start against Chelsea, while Ferdinand, who has trained all week, is a high-profile risk in a key game.

“Johnny Evans is available for tomorrow, Ferdinand has been training for over a week, whether he is ready, I’m not sure,” Ferguson told the media on Tuesday.

“Rafael is available and O’Shea and Brown are back training.”

The good news in defence is a welcome bonus after the United manager was forced to dig deep into his resources in the past month. But it is United’s forward play that has Ferguson purring ahead of a potentially season-defining fixture in London.

“What has kept us going despite the injuries we have had in defensive positions is that there has been a good goal threat from us. We have forwards who can win matches,” added the United manager.

“Scoring is what strikers are all about. When you are scoring goals, the confidence is great, you never think you are going to stop.”

“I am happy with our forward play. Chicharito’s development is a great bonus. Wayne Rooney’s form is coming back. They have been marvellous the two of them together.

“I said at the start of the season if we get two players who can score over 20 goals we are in with a great chance of winning something. Wayne is now on 12. Chicharito is on 17 and Berbatov is on 21. That is a good return and we have quite a few games left. I think my prediction is going to be accurate.”

While Rooney faces a domestic ban for the “foul and abusive language” used in United’s 4-2 win at the Boleyn Ground on Saturday, no such distractions follow the 25-year-old into Europe. Indeed, Rooney scored a fine goal at Stamford Bridge in the recent Premier League meeting between the two sides and now has nine since the turn of the year.

Chelsea v Manchester United, Stamford Bridge, 6 April 2011Ferguson must choose whether to deploy the former Evertonian in the lone front-running role favoured by the Scot in Europe, or take advantage of Chelsea’s lack of defensive pace by bringing Hernández into the side. After all, the Mexican began United’s match against Chelsea in London earlier this season.

In midfield Ferguson could welcome back Paul Scholes after the 36-year-old’s recent suspension. The flame-haired midfielder is likely to be partnered by Michael Carrick, although Ryan Giggs is also in contention for a place in the side.

And Ferguson was unusually ebullient this week, prompting talk of another treble in an interview with Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. It’s the kind of talk that 69-year-old normally resists.

“It is 14 games in two months if everything goes our way and, at United, we are used to this kind of thing, which is to our advantage,” he told the paper.

“In the past I have said many times that to win just one trophy would be great. But we have to take the chance of winning all three now. We can repeat the treble of 1999.”

To repeat that feat United will have to improve on an awful recent record against the Londoners. Chelsea completed a double over Ferguson’s side in the Premier League last year and secured a controversial 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. Indeed, United has not won at the Londoners’ home ground for eight years, while manager Carlo Ancelotti can also boast a strong record against United in Europe.

Yet, despite the rivalry Ferguson had kind words for both Ancelotti and new £50 million striker Fernando Torres ahead of tonight’s tie. Ancelotti is widely expected to step down from his role at Chelsea when the season ends in May.

“It’s incredible for Carlo, he won the Double last season. How can Chelsea think of changing such a coach?

“Carlo is a fantastic guy, a really nice person. There is nothing really between our two teams. Both possess excellent footballers, both have international experience, experienced good coaches. Really, I don’t know where all the criticism comes from.

“Of course he will score again,” Ferguson added of Torres, who has not scored since the move south in January.

“When Chelsea signed him, everyone was saying: ‘What a great signing.’ Now, because he has not scored, he is a bad signing. Can people be more ridiculous? Maybe he is just settling in from the Liverpool system to the Chelsea system.”

Ferguson will hope that Torres does not add to the three goals in eight games the Spaniard scored against United during the his time at Liverpool.

Opposition
Chelsea – 442 – Cech; Bosingwa, Terry, Ivanovic, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Zhirkov; Drogba, Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Benayoun, Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira, Kalou, Anelka.

United
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Owen, Scholes, Berbatov, Bébé, Fabio, Park, Obertan, Smalling, Gibson, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, NaniKing, Anderson.

Officials
Referee: Alberto Undiano Ibanez (ESP)
Assistant referees: Fermin Martinez Ibanez & Yuan Carlos Yuste Jimenez
Fourth official: David Fernandez Borbalan

Form
Chelsea – WWWDWD
United – WDWWWW

Reds unlucky but capitulation comes from within

March 2, 2011 Tags: , Matches 18 comments

Another trip to Stamford Bridge, another controversial refereeing performance. Once again referee Martin Atkinson got the big calls wrong and they cost Manchester United dearly on Tuesday night as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea. Wayne Rooney’s superb first half strike had given United a deserved lead at the interval before a David Luiz goal and a Frank Lampard penalty sealed a win for the hosts in the second period.

Ferguson’s post-match ire at the referee, which may yet earn the 69-year-old Scot an FA charge, came after a series of important decisions went against United. It is not the first time Atkinson has been at the centre of controversy involving the Reds. Last season the Leeds-based official ignored two legitimate penalty claims by United’s players and then awarded Chelsea a soft free kick that led eventually to the Londoners’ winning goal.

On Tuesday, Atkinson again changed the course of the game, sending off United’s captain Nemanja Vidic late in the game, failing to similarly show David Luiz red and awarding the softest of spot kicks to the home side. Atkinson also failed to spot a first-half handball by Chelsea captain John Terry that should have earned the visitors a penalty. Decisions that may cost United in the Premier League title race.

But with defeat also comes internal analysis. Atkinson’s awful performance – was it rank incompetence or lack of “fairness” as Ferguson later mused – aside, United capitulated in the second period, with the Reds’ soft midfield underbelly once again exposed. Chelsea’s goals from Luiz, following Patrice Evra’s positional error and then the penalty, after Michael Carrick needlessly gave the ball away, were entirely avoidable.

Worse still, the visitors invited much of Chelsea’s pressure in the second period – unable as United’s midfield seemed to exert any influence on the match. Ferguson’s decision not to strengthen his midfield ahead of the season may yet cost the club.

Still, in the aftermath the Scot chose, understandably perhaps, to focus on Atkinson’s performance and not his own side’s failings.

“You want a fair referee – or a strong referee, anyway – and we didn’t get that,” said Ferguson, who also criticised the Leeds-based after last season’s visit to Stamford Bridge.

“When I saw who the referee was I did fear it. I feared the worst. It was incredible. Even before that he [Luiz] had done Chicharito off the ball. He’d done him late. Nothing done, the referee’s in front of it.

“He does Rooney clear as day, [the referee is] six yards from it, he doesn’t do anything. That changed the game. These are decisions that change the game. And he’s going to be refereeing every week.

“That’s three years in a row now. It’s hard to take. The Luiz foul was six yards in front of the referee, maybe eight if we give him the benefit of the doubt, no obstructions whatsoever.

“I don’t know how he [Luiz] stayed on the pitch. And the penalty was very soft. In actual fact, Chris has taken the ball and the player’s left his leg in. Very soft. Amazing.”

In that Ferguson is generous, with accusations of a Yuri Zhirkov dive far closer to the mark as Chelsea clawed its way back into the match with an approach that often sailed close to the wind.

The match began brightly for United though, with Ferguson surprisingly leaving out his top scorer Dimitar Berbatov in favour of Mexican youngster Javier Hernández. It was Ferguson’s first unchanged line-up in 165 matches, dating back to 2008.

And with Wayne Rooney partnering the 22-year-old, United deployed a 4-4-2 system against Chelsea for the first time in recent memory. It created an open match in which the visitors offered the greater threat during a lively first 45. Indeed, Hernández and Rooney almost combined with just minutes on the clock. The Mexican exchanged passes with Evra before firing across the six yard area just out of Rooney’s reach.

Rooney then headed wide as the home crowd got on top of the £27 million United striker. If anything the jeers inspired the former Evertonian who crashed home a wonderful drive on the half hour following an exchange with Nani. Chelsea’s static defence can take the blame for failing to close down United’s talisman but Rooney’s fifth goal in as many games said much about the forward’s increasing confidence.

Still, minutes before the break United could thank Edwin van der Sar for a wonderful double-save, stopping first Lampard’s free-kick and then Branislav Ivanovic’s goalbound effort before clawing away the danger. At 40-years-young United will deeply miss the Dutch legend when he retires in the summer.

Chelsea’s response to United’s first half dominance was as speedy as it was aggressive. Quicker to the ball, sharper in the tackle, more incisive in the pass, the Londoners turned the match around within nine minutes of the restart. Ivanovic flicked on Michael Essien’s cross for defender Luiz to fire past Van der Sar.

The change reflected both Chelsea’s greater drive and United’s inner-capitulation.

Yet, even as United’s midfield became over-run the match could not have turned without Atkinson’s intervention. First, Atkinson failed to spot Terry’s handball, then the Yorkshire-born official twice failed to show Luiz a second yellow card, first for a crude foul on Hernández and then an even wilder off-the-ball hack at Rooney.

More crucial still, Atkinson then awarded Chelsea a penalty as Zhirkov fell over Smalling static leg with just minutes left on the clock. Smalling can justifiably feel aggrieved at both his opponent’s gamesmanship and the official’s incompetence.

In the grand picture Chelsea fought its way back into the game; in the detail officialdom again cost United at Stamford Bridge.

Time will tell whether United’s visit to Anfield on Sunday comes at the right time or not. Vidic’s late-red card for a second yellow card under the totting up procedure robs Ferguson’s side of its captain. It couldn’t come at a worse time, with Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand still injured.

Yet, there is no better match to focus United’s collective thoughts.

“At the moment we feel pretty down, but we can move on quickly. We have to,” midfielder Carrick told MUTV.

“We’re used to doing that and we’re normally good at that, so hopefully we can bounce back again. We have to get rid of this game, forget about it and move on. It’s obviously a huge game on Sunday and we’ll be ready for that. We have to be.

“That’s the nature of the beast. We move on and we take a lot of positives from tonight and look to put things right that didn’t go well. We’ll be ready.

“It is disappointing, especially after the first half and the way we played. We were in control. Second half we weren’t as quick and decisive in our passing as we were in the first half, but we still felt quite comfortable and I still thought we might score again.”

The Reds didn’t and Ferguson must hope that defeat at Chelsea doesn’t ultimately cost United the title.

Match Facts
Chelsea – 442 – Cech; Ivanovic, David Luiz (Bosingwa 81), Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Malouda (Zhirkov 71); Torres, Anelka (Drogba 61).

United – 442 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes (Giggs 70), Nani; Rooney, Hernández (Berbatov 70).

Attendance – 41,825
Man of the Match – Rooney

Possession: Chelsea 53% – 47% United
Attempts: 17 – 12
On Target: 6 – 5
Corners: 10 – 2
Fouls: 11 – 14