By Martin Adam
A 76th minute header by Chelsea captain John terry proves to be the clincher in a close and fiery encounter in South West London.
Stamford Bridge was the setting on Sunday for the Premiership’s top of the league clash, pitting on song Chelsea against Manchester United. Ancelotti’s men were looking to further push the margin between the two rivals to five points.
Chelsea fielded a full strength squad which included the return of half of the most feared strike partnership in English football, Nicolas Anelka, following a midweek benching against Athletico Madrid.
Meanwhile Alex Ferguson’s injury woes in defence continued. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić were once again forced to sit out, still struggling to regain full match fitness following recent knocks. This saw the drafting in of Wes brown and Jonny Evans to fill the gaps left at centre back. Dangerous Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov was also absent from the makeshift United side.
The game broke off to a timid start with united holding much of the first half possession. It became clear the reds game plan was to exploit the opposition’s diamond formation in midfield and break down Chelsea’s rhythm and effectiveness. Wayne Rooney veered from his preferred central forward position and floated into pockets of space around the area, making intelligent runs and telegraphing momentum switching long balls. New acquisition Antonia Valencia held position tight against left back Ashley Cole and duly frustrated with some powerful and pacey charges down the wing.
Neither side seemed to possess a cutting edge. Build up play was patient and tidy but led to little clear goal scoring opportunities.
Long range efforts from both Ryan gigs and Michael Carrick kept Chelsea keeper Petr Cech busy to an extent but the Czech handled them with little difficulty.
Chelsea had the better of the few chances created during the first half. Anelka drifted in from the right side and propelled a glancing shot towards Edwin van der Saar’s goal which the big Dutchman comfortably saved.
Around the half hour mark the Frenchman’s keen eye for goals became apparent again. He cut inside his marker and sent a well struck curling attempt towards the far post, forcing an impressive one-handed save from the United keeper.
Both sides returned to the dressing rooms at half time after forty-five minutes which ticked away with little incident.
The previous pattern of play was repeated in the majority of the second period. Scotland internationalist and key man in crucial fixtures to Manchester boss Ferguson impressed with a solid and disciplined performance. He was the first to forge an effort on goal in the second half smashing a stinging drive goal wards only to be blocked by Carvalho.
Chelsea playmaker Deco gradually faded from notice in the game, prompting Carlo Ancelotti to make his first substitution of the game replacing the ex Barcelona stalwart with Joe Cole with 63 minutes gone.
Rooney as inventive and hungry to have the ball in his possession as ever swung infield, collected the ball on the turn and flighted a magnificent curling effort towards the top corner. Forcing Cech to make a save as challenging as any he would face in the match, tipping it just past his post.
In the 72nd minute Didier Drogba’s chest was met with the studs of Jonny Evans following a wild lunge of an aerial challenge. The Ivorian crumbled to the ground in what seemed considerable pain. The referee deemed the incident as accidental and Evans avoided being penalised. However when Drogba returned to his feet, much to the bewilderment of the player and fans in attendance the official brandished a yellow card towards him.
The lead up to Chelsea’s 73rd minute winner proved to be highly controversial. Fletcher was booked for a challenge on Ashley Cole when he appeared to win the ball cleanly. The resulting free kick delivered by Frank Lampard with his trademark pin point accuracy met John Terry’s rising head and connected with the back of the net. United were left further disheartened when pleas that Drogba was infringing on active play by pushing Wes Brown following the cross fell on deaf ears. Angered United manager Alex Ferguson later remarked, “That goal should not have been allowed.”
The goal and Drogba’s collision sparked the game into life. Passion began to rise with some tempers flaring. Late challenges, petty squabbling and pushing between players littered the last quarter.
Michael Owen and young French left winger Gabriel Obertan joined the action in the 84th minute as United sought to rally and snatch an equalizer. Despite some flair and promise shown by the twenty year old prospect there was little to worry a Chelsea defence which looked rock solid throughout.
Manchester United could not take advantage of yet another lengthy extension of time after the ninety minutes and walked away from a largely disappointing game with nothing to show for their dominance in midfield.
Post match the Chelsea coach expressed his delight with the win but urged caution despite being 5 points clear at the summit of the table.
“We are now five points clear but we know very well that the season is long, we have to maintain this atmosphere and we hope to maintain this gap.”
The defeat to the new title favourites has seen United drop down to third place, surpassed by a young and talented arsenal side who continued their rise with a comprehensive 4 -1 win over Wolverhampton on Saturday.