Chelsea’s first match sans The Special One and his team of coaches was at Old Trafford against arch rivals Manchester United. A series of contentious refereeing decisions conspired against Chelsea, with the goal thirty seconds after half time should have been blown, Mikel’s dubious sending off and the penalty won by a tumbling Saha to seal the points. Chelsea went down 2-0, but showed typical spirit and fight to provide optimism for the fans under the new regime.
Avram Grant caused a stir with his first team selection, with many bemused at his selection of his compatriot Tal Ben-Haim in central defence, over Alex, who was dropped to the substitutes bench. He also recalled Paulo Ferreira at right back, preferring him to the equally impressive Juliano Belletti who wasn’t even on the bench. In a 4-3-3 shape, Mikel, Makelélé and Essien patrolled the midfield, with Malouda and Joe Cole either side of Andriy Shevchenko in attack. Without Didier Drogba- the source of much speculation since Mourinho’s departure- and Frank Lampard, the Blues needed somebody to shoulder the goal scoring burden.
A little slip from Ben-Haim presented the first opportunity of the game to Manchester United. Wayne Rooney curled a wonderful strike towards the top corner from 25 yards, only a mercurial, top drawer save from Petr Čech, stretching full length high to his left, was able to keep it out.
Sixteen minutes in United had their first appeal for a penalty turned down by Mike Dean, after Patrice Evra went flying under a sliding tackle from Joe Cole. It would have been harsh to give, but Mr. Dean is no stranger to harsh decisions.
Most of the play was heading United’s way, and when Giggs volleyed over a Rooney cross, the warning signs were there for Chelsea. The alarm bells were soon blaring, when, in the 31st minute, John Obi Mikel was sent off by referee Dean for an alleged two footed studs up challenge on Patrice Evra. Replays show the Nigerian was very harshly done by, having slid in with one foot and admittedly studs up. However to dismiss the midfielder for such a challenge was unnecessary and in doing so, the game swung even further in Manchester United’s favour. Malouda and Joe Cole dropped into midfield, leaving Shevchenko alone up front in a 4-4-1 formation.
Two minutes of time were added on at the end of the half, with two minutes and thirty seconds of that elapsed, Manchester United score. Note, the extra thirty seconds. A partially cleared corner made it’s way back to Ryan Giggs, who, with typical class curled a cross with the outside of his boot onto the head of Carlos Tevez at the near post, who glanced a header past Čech for his first goal for United. Controversy reigned at Old Trafford, and it was only half time.
The second half continued in much the same vein, United dominating, 10 man Chelsea struggling to break through and create openings. The power of Drogba up front and the creativity of Lampard in midfield were once more sorely missed.
Giggs volleyed another chance over after a pinpoint long ball from Carrick, with Paulo Ferreira completely caught out at right back. Kalou replaced Shevchenko, and Wright-Phillips replaced Malouda as Grant looked to turn things in our favour. Essien managed a snap shot off target in a rare attacking raid.
Claudio Pizarro replaced Joe Cole for Chelsea, whilst Saha replaced the goal scorer Tevez for the home side, who continued to create chances. The best of these was from the penalty spot, after Saha easily went over the outstretched leg of Ben-Haim, once more Mr. Dean showing that he was no stranger to harsh decisions in awarding the spot kick. Saha tucked it down the middle to score, Čech going to his right.
Louis Saha blasted over late on when he should have played in Wayne Rooney, but with three minutes of added time played, there was to be no more controversy, the referee having exhausted his Old Trafford allowance for this game.
Although there was controversy surrounding the goals and the sending off of Mikel, what isn’t in doubt was Chelsea’s inability to create chances in front of goal. Shevchenko was starved of service up front, whilst the midfield lacked creativity, enhanced by Mikel’s enforced departure. Whilst Chelsea’s heart and energy can be commended, we are now 6th on the table, and Avram Grant must get his side creating more chances to score if we are to mount a challenge this season.
What better place to start that then against Hull, next up?
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand (c), Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Tevez (Saha 78).
Chelsea (4-3-3): Čech; Ferreira, Ben-Haim, Terry (c), A Cole; Mikel, Makelélé, Essien; J Cole (Pizarro 75), Shevchenko (Kalou 59), Malouda (Wright-Phillips 68).
Referee Mike Dean.