By Tom Sheldrick
Last Wednesday’s meeting of Barcelona and Arsenal merits the description of a ‘modern classic’, so sumptuous was the Spanish side’s soccer, so stirring the English team’s response. Chelsea’s trip to Old Trafford for the ‘title-decider’ with Manchester United was not in the same league in many terms, but – a chess match of a game, the stakes so high – it was just as intriguing.
The worst two games United have played in recent memory – against Barcelona in the Champions League final last May and against Bayern Munich on Tuesday – they didn’t have the ball. On Tuesday, they had two passers in the middle – Carrick and Scholes – but not the ball. Against Chelsea, there were two scrappers – Park and Fletcher – whose job was to get that ball to Scholes, but they still didn’t manage it.
Ancelotti set Chelsea up in that European style, treasuring the football, slowing but dictating the tempo of the game, starving the home side of possession in the first half in particular. While United’s talisman – Wayne Rooney – was excluded due to injury, Chelsea’s – Didier Drogba – was left out in a tactical decision. Many Chelsea fans have told me they see the Blues as a better side without Drogba. Nicolas Anelka was chosen at the point of a diamond attack, not scoring this weekend or last, but providing subtle interplay with the brilliant Florent Malouda. Why change a winning team? Chelsea were rampant in battering Aston Villa 7-1 last time out. Drogba may not have been fit to start, but a great option off the bench when coming under the cosh in the closing stages, because his physical presence will always occupy two – even three – defenders. He was there when they needed the get-out option, and got the controversial second goal.
Further back, in that Chelsea midfield, with the relentless Essien still unavailable, and the physicality of Ballack left out, Ancelotti consciously went for keep-ball with Deco and Joe Cole. Both love having it at their feet, and produced their finest performances of the season. Whether face-to-face or simply when he put the team sheet up on the wall before the game, Carlo Ancelotti said to Paolo Ferreira, Deco and Joe Cole on the right hand-side of the team: “I think you boys can do a job for the team today, I have faith in you”. It paid off, Cole’s impish back-heeled finish for Chelsea’s first belying the lack of match practice and confidence he’s enjoyed this term.
Ferreira, and Zhirkov on the other side, were told to do what they do best, and go forward. Whilst fully aware of their defensive responsibilities, there’s no point trying to make them players they’re not. The Portuguese could have – should have – scored at the end of one lung-busting run, and it was only when Nani came on that he was really tested going backwards. Ryan Giggs has lost his pace in latter years, and never got close enough to Ferreira, who – as his fellow Portuguese showed when teeing up United’s goal for Nani – doesn’t like a winger running at him.
As for Zhirkov, the Russian played a key role in the opener. His bombing-on down the line meant Gary Neville had to drift wide to cover for the pass, allowing Florent Malouda the space to drive into. Scholes kept looking for the ball to the right-wing, to isolate him against Valencia and Gary Neville, whose ability as a crosser is underappreciated. It looked like it might be fruitful early on, but the left-back stuck to his task, and succeeded by making Valencia mark him rather than vice versa. Actually, despite Ferguson employing two out-and-out wide men to test Chelsea’s full-backs, United looked more threatening through the middle. Lampard and Ferreira made vital covering challenges, while Park lashed high and wide. More pressure should have been put on a Blues defence which contained only John Terry from its first choice line-up.
Chelsea’s 4-5-1 without the ball turns into 3-4-3 with it – a narrow front three, the full-backs up the flanks and Mikel dropping back. The Nigerian’s been asked to fill the Makelele role, but, while maturing, lacks the defensive positional sense and experience to do so. Aside from one piercing run where that vital just-off-the-striker space was penetrated with startling ease, Darren Fletcher in particular failed to exploit that frailty. Mikel likes the ball at his feet, he’s a ball-player of a holding midfielder, rather than a Javier Mascherano ball-getting terrier. Life was made easier for him by Dimitar Berbatov’s nonchalance up front for United. While it is unfair to label his late chance a ‘sitter’, he just didn’t give the Chelsea defence enough to do. There’s no way Rooney would have let Terry, Alex and Mikel stroke the ball around as easily as they did.
Scholes, Neville and Giggs were picked because they’d seen it all before, they know what these games are about. Yet they, and United overall, looked, as Ferguson said, ‘leggy.’ It’s no coincidence their record is poor when returning from European away fixtures. Yet, after being given a kick up the backsides at the change-over, when they did up the tempo and really start to harry the opposing midfield, they were a real threat. There was a five-minute spell before Chelsea’s second when they bombarded the away side’s area, and panic started to creep into the Blues’ defending.
So closely matched are these sides – so much do they know about one another – it’s often the ability of a manager to change the game with his substitutions that makes all the difference. It was no coincidence that the Ivorian subs Kalou and Drogba combined for Chelsea’s second, as it was that United’s fresh-off-the-bench Nani and Macheda did for the goal that made the last ten minutes very interesting indeed. That United could have got the draw after their second half rally is testament to their staying power.
Of course, Rooney was a big miss for United, who also claim to have been the victims of officials’ errors. Drogba’s goal was offside – although not by as great a distance as the pundits have made it sound – but Macheda nearly caught the ball as he netted United’s consolation. Both sides could have had a penalty, but neither got one.
With now five games to play in the title race, Chelsea simply had to win at Old Trafford. What’s all-important now is that the destination of the title is in their hands. For Manchester United there’s the real danger – after consecutive defeats and the injury to their talisman – that a 60-game season will unravel within a week.
Scoring summary & Line Ups:
Macheda 81; J Cole 20, Drogba 79.
Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Scholes; Valencia, Park, Giggs; Berbatov (Nani, Macheda, Gibson).
Cech; Ferreira, Alex, Terry, Zhirkov; Mikel; J Cole, Deco, Lampard, Malouda; Anelka (Drogba, Kalou, Ballack)
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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