Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chelsea v Manchester United, September 21, Premier League

The pressure in my view was largely on Manchester United for this one with game coming a bit too early in the season to cause much impact making momentum swing. A defeat to Liverpool followed by a draw against Villareal and Alex Ferguson could have done with a softer fixture than this to ease their way back into form. However their status as Champions of England and Europe demands that they take what is thrown for them and they had to be ready.

For Chelsea, there were the points, and the unbeaten streaks to lose. Over 4 years and 84 games without defeat at home and almost ten months without any league defeat. But a manager like Scolari would not get flustered by the loss of streaks if indeed Chelsea did lose. It’s a record that you can feel proud of as long as it carries on but when it does it get over, you just say “had to happen” and move on.

The world expected Ronaldo to start but he didn’t. Neither did Tevez and instead of the fearsome foursome you had Rooney and Berbatov up front supported by Scholes, Fletcher, Hargreaves and Park ji Sung in midfield. Not quite so ‘fearsome’ but more pragmatic and dare I say, the smarter decision.

For Chelsea, the major selection headaches have been avoided till now thanks to injuries and the line-up could have been predictable. But Deco injured himself in the warm-up and that meant that Ballack, himself recovering from fitness and slated to be on the bench, now had a starting role. Drogba was on the bench too and it couldn’t have been too soon for Chelsea for good as Anelka is, Drogba in the team is a different level of impact altogether.

I didn’t expect the game to be of the highest standard and it was not. But it was more engrossing than most other games because so many players of such quality can bring an added dimension to scrapping which other teams can’t. And it was a scrap. Almost from kick-off till the final whistle and at the end of it you could not decide if a draw was a fair result or if Man U were lucky to get a point. Had they held on to a win, some might have even felt that was justified and it would be an opinion you could easily argue for.

The commentators insisted that Man U had been the ‘dominant’ team leading upto their goal around the 20th minute but I disagree. I think Chelsea had had the better position and Bosingwa and Joe Cole looked to be the most threatening combination on the park. Not that Chelsea were dominating either. It was just a little yo-yo game made interesting by the willingness of all players to go for every loose ball. Anelka nodded the ball for J Cole for the first clear cut chance of the game which Cole uncharacteristically shot over. Today though, barring a few good moments, this was more typical of how he played.

If Manchester United did dominate, it was for a brief period just after Cole’s miss. Maybe it had more to do with Carvalho having to go off with an injury (replaced by Alex, one of the best bench options for central defence in the Premier League). The goal was scored by Park after Cech failed to hold on to an ordinary Berbatov shot and the defence had completely lost its shape. But I felt Chelsea’s frailty at the time was their central midfield which was failing to assert. For a few minutes they were completely shackled by Fletcher and Scholes and could not push the play beyond the half line allowing Rooney and Berbatov to get involved and play the ball on to oncoming midfielders.

Manchester United were doing their job and for some time seemed to have remembered Sir Alex’s displeasure at being out-hassled by Liverpool. They were definitely out-hassling Chelsea for a spell in between and even before the goal Chelsea were finding it difficult to clear the ball properly. Added to that they were failing to spot Man U movements and that allowed Rio Ferdinand a simple shot on goal which Cech did well to save. But when moments later Evra got the ball from an attempted corner clearance, Man U were presented with a second chance and they didn’t fail. Evra was allowed to bring the ball to the box (Bosingwa found wanting) and play it to Berbatov. And Cech, not the great keeper he once was spilled it and Park had to tap in. Noticably their was no Chelsea player tracking Park.

After the goal it was Chelsea who woke up and Man U while not quite going to sleep, seemed to lose the desire to get creative. The big difference was made by Mikel, Lampard and Ballack who started winning a lot more balls and finding the gaps to get it to the feet of J Cole and Malouda.
Chelsea ended the first half on the up and continued the pressure in the second. Drogba came on for the again-ineffective Malouda. In some ways it was like watching Pool v Stoke, only this had a lot more edge and flashes of skill. While Man U did do a fairly decent job of holding Chelsea and not giving them too many chances, they were far from assuring. Van der Saar tried to play through injury but withdrew before he made a serious blunder. Kuszack’s reliability looked suspect and with no Vidic available, Rio Ferdinand had to put in a commanding performance to protect the lead for as long as possible.

And yet Chelsea will have no one but themselves to blame for not taking three points out of this. Joe Cole missed another but then set Anleka up for the easiest of tap-ins which he missed with an empty goal and barely any distance between him and the line. There were other wasted chances too. Man United were threatening to break occasionally but there was nothing truly worring for Chelsea. The equalizer came eventually through sub Kalou from a set-piece which Man U should really have defended better.

It is difficult to describe precisely the nature of the game if you didn’t see it. Till the very end it was a ‘fight for the ball’ contest with some good touches, passes and blocks. It also had some of the worst touches by premier league footballers that you will see, culminating in a series of four different players failing to kick the ball properly. It was competitive but not violent, though ref Mike Riley went bonkers and booked seven, yes seven, Manchester United players. It was competitive but not great. Neither was it boring...

Ronaldo got a run in the second half, and an attempted bicycle kick and an embarrassing dive apart, he did not make much of an impact. But he is bound to be rusty and it will be a good few minutes under his belt. Ballack and Drogba were the Chelsea players making their comebacks and while Ballack was decent after the first few minutes till he got substituted, Deco’s presence was missed by Chelsea. Drogba like Ronaldo did not set the stage on fire and will need some time to be back to his best.

For Man U, the worries continue. They failed to get their strikers involved often enough and they will need to start showing more authority. Maybe they will need time to bed Berbatov into the equation and figure out a stable first choice central mid-field player. The quality is evident but it hasn’t started flowing for them yet.

For Chelsea, Malouda is clearly below par. Game after game he shows that he is missing that last 5% which could place him at par with the rest of the team. Ashley Cole’s resurgence a great left back continues and Bosingwa can make a lot of impact but needs to get better with his crossing. Not too many problems to worry about, except maybe cutting down their defensive errors.
Both managers should be happy enough with a draw though Alex Ferguson will be anxious to get some wins and bags of goals soon. This draw leaves Arsenal one point clear at the top and to my mind if I had to pick the best team on form, the table seems to be pointing its fingers right. Exciting days ahead!

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