For all the plaudits aimed towards Manchester United so far this season, many felt that the true first test of the season would come against Chelsea at Old Trafford. This, of course, forgetting that teams such as Tottenham and Arsenal have been seen off, and in some cases rather emphatically. However, it was felt that the first of the clashes involving a side that would be up there come the end of the season, would be that of the match up against Chelsea. In fact it was as much a test of the new coach at Stamford Bridge as it was for United’s fairly new-look side. Indeed, the game turned out as such in what turned into a rather open affair, with Chelsea having the majority of chances and United having their fair share as well, with both sides guilty of squandering glaring opportunities, one felt the scoreline could have gone either way. Nobody could have predicted that United would be going in at half time 3 goals to the good, and when, just after the break, the defence were caught napping, a rejuvenated Fernando Torres calmly put past David De Gea with only seconds on the clock. From that nerves may have been on edge amongst the United faithful, and some may have been surprised that the scoreline remained as it did, with the match throwing up memorable moments such as the in-form Wayne Rooney doing his best “John Terry in Moscow” impression with his penalty and Torres doing the unthinkable by rounding De Gea and then shooting wide at an open target. After such an entertaining game, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) United are taking their chances extremely well
If there was one thing that could be said about the overall performance on Sunday afternoon, it was that it was perhaps the weakest performance in the Premier League so far, which is testament to the standard that has been played when such an opinion is placed on a game involving a strong Chelsea side. In fact, for much of the game it could be argued that the West London side were the better of the two because although United statistically had greater possession, it seemed that Chelsea were creating far more out of what they had with 19 attempts at goal to United’s 11. United let the game play out far too openly, often being caught out in midfield and struggling to hold back the attacking threat that Chelsea were posing. The midfield was where United appeared to be exposed most, with the ball being given away needlessly at times and struggling to deal with an offensively set up Chelsea side. However, for all the chances that Chelsea had it was United who walked away winners simply because of how clinical they were in making the most of what they had. The fact that 6 of 11 of their chances were on target as opposed to Chelsea’s 8 out of 19 shows this. For a significant portion of the first half United’s only attempt at goal was Smalling’s opener whereas Chelsea failed to make much of the 7 they had. To be 3-0 up at half time was probably not a reflection of the action in the first half, but it was simply a case of Sir Alex Ferguson’s men punishing wastefulness. Ferguson himself will have wished for a more comfortable second half and will probably warn against complacency from winning positions in future, but in the end his side were able to maintain the 2 goal lead and see the game out at 3-1.
2) Rio Ferdinand should have featured
When going up 3-0 at half time, it was a fairly safe assumption that Chelsea would begin the second half in an attack-minded state and that defensively United would need to be switched on so as not to be caught out. Unfortunately, this happened to be the case as Torres broke through with relative ease and place a slick finish to bring his side back into the game. At that point, the back four could have used an experienced and sure head to help organise and see them through the nervous turbulent moments that followed and often came about during the second half as they tried to reduce the gap further. This will not turn into a rant about the ineptitude of any particular defender, but perhaps Rio Ferdinand would have been a wise option for the latter stages of the game to provide some organisation and calm to the relatively youthful set up. Yes, Patrice Evra would have provided that, but some may feel that for the central pairing, an experienced head is a necessity. With Phil Jones proving particularly impressive, Ferdinand could have partnered him in the centre and, in theory, provide greater stability to a back line that began to look exposed more often as the game wore on. It is unclear why he was left out of the squad for Sunday’s fixture, it may have been injury, but if he was fit, his presence would have been welcomed.
3) Nani – Potential for greatness
An interesting statistic came out during Sunday’s encounter. First the moment in question. With approximately 8 minutes remaining of the first half, Nani took the ball dribbling past one, and with two more closing in, lashed a ferocious effort into Cech’s top right corner at a pace that the Chelsea ‘keeper did not even dive for. It left Ferguson stunned and sent the crowd into a euphoric state of celebration. It was a sublime effort that epitomised the Portuguese wingers day overall, terrorising Ashley Cole on the wing and constantly providing a threat, coming close to scoring again when he hit the bar leading up the penalty. From the goal, we learned that from a similar number of minutes, Nani had scored the same number of goals that one Cristiano Ronaldo (ever in comparison) had at that stage, but that the young pretender had provided far more assists at 33. This is testament to how far he has improved since last season and is a mark of his importance to the United attack. He has forged a strong partnership with Ashley Young on the flanks in a relatively short space of time, in part thanks to Young’s seamless settling at the club, establishing themselves as the first choice pairing.
4) Antonio Valencia – Versatility at right back
Valencia being utilised at right back is nothing new for United, but nonetheless it was encouraging to see him take up the role and hold position so well in not finding himself exposed by going forward too often. With the impressive Smalling coming off with a knock, it fell on Valencia to provide cover and he did the job expertly. It should be noted that Smalling proved influential again as he opened the scoring on 8 minutes when Young fired in a free kick, and although marginally offside, he was left with a free header that did not go unpunished powerfully heading home from close range. Knowing that such depth is there to be used in such a way will no doubt be reassuring when injuries may creep in and United find themselves short on numbers.
5) Ashley Cole should have been sent off
As Javier Hernandez looked to make something of the rebound that came his way, Ashley Cole came charging in tackling extremely late after the Mexican striker played the ball, leaving him limping off and replaced by Dimitar Berbatov. After consulting his assistant Phil Dowd called over Cole and booked him for the tackle. Much confusion followed as many wondered why had a penalty not been given, especially as a booking was essentially an admission that a foul had been committed. it could be argued that as the ball had been played out then advantage may have been played or that but he rules a penalty was not justified, whereas others, pundits included, felt such a late challenge warranted a penalty. Regardless of the debate, most agreed that Cole was lucky not to see red for what was an extremely late tackle that left Hernandez injured.
Extra – Rooney and Torres – Two good goals, two big misses
Regardless of the jibes aimed at Torres, one has to admit that he is very much a dangerous striker, as demonstrated by his performance on Sunday that included a well taken finish. However, his lack of confidence was completely shown up when, after rounding De Gea he put the ball wide of an empty net. This would have brought the game to within a single goal and set up an extremely nervy finish. Now to Wayne Rooney, who by his own standards did not have his best game so far this season (even though this included a goal). After Phil Jones’ superb charge into the area and great strength to keep the ball led to a good bounce from Nani for Rooney to slot home, giving United a 3 goal lead going into the break. However, with a 2 goal lead in the second half, and Nani winning a penalty after hitting the bar, it was on the in-form striker to put the game beyond doubt. Instead, fans saw what appeared to be a repeat of the final in Moscow from a United perspective, with Rooney instead of Terry, stepping up and slipping as he took the shot and putting the ball high and wide. The only difference of course is that this only denied Rooney his 10th goal of the season, and not the Champion’s League. Rooney could well have had yet another hat trick, but instead found himself wasting with chances going astray.
One final point is that of David De Gea. For all the talk of Lindegaard and Ferguson fiercely defending his new ‘keeper, it would have been reassuring to see the young Spaniard appearing to settle more into life at Old Trafford with a performance that certainly prevented Chelsea scoring more. One notable moment was when, at 1-0 up, Chelsea looked as though they would pass into an empty net as the ball was played across on the floor, only for De Gea to scramble over and deny Ramires a goal.