Manchester United are champions in all but name after Hernandez and Vidic scored early to secure a 2-1 win over the defending champions. The hosts named an as-expected side, the only real surprise being John O’Shea’s inclusion; this was a enforced change after Patrice Evra was ruled out in the warm-up. Ancelotti selected the side that best suited his system – Drogba down the middle flanked by Kalou and Malouda. This meant Torres would return to the bench.
It was the second fastest goal of the season and one that really turned the tables in this game. Hernandez’s early opener put all the pressure on Chelsea and United were essentially ahead for the rest of the game.
From a technical point of view it’s easy to see what went wrong. David Luiz was caught on the wrong side of a very good striker; and what they do best is punish you for that. A quality centre-back doesn’t get caught turning a player towards goal, meaning that a lunge is as close as you will get to stopping the run. Perhaps Luiz is used to the Portugese league’s quality of strikers being poorer in the pace department – once upon a time he may have been able to recover those mistakes with his speed. However, as Walters did for Stoke and Javier Hernandez did for United proved today, the English league can boast faster dribblers. It’s twice now that Luiz’s poor positioning has cost us an early goal. Perhaps the end of season will give Luiz a few weeks break and then a solid pre-season to adapt to the Premier League.
Power of the wings
Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia provided a great show of football acumen to Carlo Ancelotti and emphasised what transfer targets need to be considered in the upcoming window. Both were hard-working in defence, clever in attack and did a good job nullifying their opposing full-back.
A key feature of Chelsea vs Manchester is Ferguson’s attention to the attacking threat of Ashley Cole. Previously he has played both Giggs and Valencia high up the pitch, leaving space in behind but allowing them to halt his momentum.
However Ancelotti took Ferguson’s problem out of his hands with a rather curious decision. It was commented by the commentators about half-way during the second half that Ancelotti was telling Cole to “go forward”. This may have been a strategy to help handle the movement of United’s front two, but it gave Valencia confidence early on, and he had a great game. Rarely do we see Cole be so effectively dominated, but today he was rendered obsolete. As you can see from the chalkboard, Valencia was very successful in his tackling and was on numerous occasions easily able to go past his man.
Park Ji-Sung also had a very good game. Famed for his big-game ability, he lived up to his ability with a solid performance from right midfield, drifting in from the wing to add a third central midfielder. He also caused Ivanovic problems by drawing him inside and giving Wayne Rooney and Hernandez space to play, as Lee Dixon remarked on MOTD. “In attack he also occupies narrower positions but that makes the full-back think because he can go wide as well. He picks the ball up in areas that full-backs don’t necessarily like to go in and mark.”
The bottom chalkboard above shows the various positions Park picked up the ball throughout the game – a testament to his constant movement and work ethic that contributed to a sterling, if not match-winning performance.
A lot of the pre-match focus was on how Chelsea would cope with Wayne Rooney after the re-invented striker had scored twice in the past three meetings between the two sides. The problems on those occasions were that the midfield was guilty of giving him far too much time on the ball. Playing Mikel seemed to be the solution, as the extra man that Chelsea lacked in those two games (as they were playing 4-4-2) was now available. However, the roles were rather, reversed. Rooney looked to hassle Mikel out of possession, and Mikel was often too far forward when Rooney picked up the ball deep in the Chelsea half. As he frantically rushed back, the Englishman made the most of the opportunity and it was only Cech who kept it out.
The obvious change was to bring on Ramires for Mikel. With Essien at the base, and Ramires’ tireless work ethic, Rooney was covered for much more often when United countered. As the half wore on he became more and more open, but this can be attributed to the pouring of players forward.
A braver decision than Torres may have been for Ancelotti to introduce Benayoun. It wasn’t really an issue of getting strikers on the pitch – it was getting chances. The Israeli has always shown his aptitude at picking the killer ball – something that really has been lacking for Chelsea this season – and in a game like this, it would have been a risky decision; with big money odds.
Chelsea were beaten by a better team. There is no shame in saying that when you have the full intention of returning stronger than ever. There will be lots and lots of column inches devoted to Ancelotti in the coming weeks, and even more on potential transfers. With two games to go, a strong finish will curtain the season well, where finishing second must not be taken for granted, but at the same time lessons must be learned.
United were clinical and consistent. They have been the best team this season from a statistical point of view. Whilst they may lack the ‘magic’ of previous seasons, Ferguson has created a hard working unit of players who have shown their skill and spirit at crucial points in the title race and the Champions League.