Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Comeback Kings Fight to Keep Crown

Manchester United staged a stunning fightback in an enthralling encounter at Stamford Bridge, leaving Chelsea bewildered, staunchly reminding critics to doubt them at their own peril.

Alex Ferguson has vehemently denied that his current squad lacks the class of previous sides, although their faltering progress in cup competitions this term is evidence against such claims.
Perfect execution from Mata

Yet when United produce a display such as they did in the second half against Chelsea, correcting a three goal deficit, it serves as a firm implication that they will not relinquish their crown with ease.

A Jonny Evans own goal put the home side ahead, with a scintillating strike from Juan Mata and a deflected David Luiz header sailing Chelsea into a three goal lead and the Stamford Bridge faithful into a frenzy.

But the game was not finished and neither were Manchester United.

Clumsy defending from the home team and a touch of good fortune allowed Wayne Rooney to convert two penalties, with a dramatic header from Javier Hernandez sparking scenes of jubilation for the visitors.

Chelsea could have snatched a winner, but David de Gea defied his critics with two stunning saves in the dying minutes, from a wonderfully executed Mata free-kick and a powerful drive by debutant Gary Cahill.

An enticing spectacle for the neutral and a wonderful advert for Premier League football, the contest was summarised by Alex Ferguson, as a game that “epitomises English football”.

Welbeck earns soft penalty
The outcome saw the champions fall two points adrift of neighbours Manchester City in the title race, but given the context of the game, United will view this as one point gained in a match showcasing their famous never-say-die attitude.

For Chelsea, it was a missed opportunity to solidify their position in the top four as they remain just a solitary point ahead of fifth place Newcastle.

Chelsea had never failed to win a game in which they had led by three goals, but a defence void of injured captain John Terry and suspended full-back Ashley Cole, always looked delicate.

A cagey atmosphere saw Rio Ferdinand booed with every touch of the ball and Alex Ferguson as animated as ever, following Cahill’s last ditch tackle on Danny Welbeck.

Rooney nets from the spot
First contact was outside the box but the former Bolton man found himself extremely fortunate to escape unpunished by the clumsy challenge, admitting he was “slightly fortunate to get away with that one”.

Despite United’s apparent dominance it was Chelsea who took the lead, when Daniel Sturridge skilfully outwitted Patrice Evra, seeing his cut-back deflected into the United net via the torso of Evans..

What promised to be a tight clash in the second half was anything but that for the opening thirteen minutes.

With only twenty-four seconds on the clock, Patrice Evra was caught wondering wildly out of position, not for the first time this season, allowing Torres to gather the ball unchallenged on Chelsea’s right flank. The Spaniard looked up once, sending a missile directly onto the boot of his fellow countryman at United’s back post, where Mata slammed home to double their lead.

Four minutes later, Mata turned provider, delivering a fizzling free-kick, met by a rising David Luiz, whose header deflected off Ferdinand into the top corner, wrong-footing the helpless De Gea.

Hernandez heads home
Evra’s desire is unquestionable, however, having contributed in part to all three Chelsea goals, Ferguson will surely have stern words with his skipper prior to facing Liverpool on Saturday.

With United dazed and confused, Chelsea fans began their celebrations, only to be halted by a penalty awarded to the visitors when Sturridge carelessly clattered into Evra just before the hour.

With mixed fortunes from the spot this season, Rooney made no mistake this time, thrashing the ball into the top corner à la Shearer. He returned to the centre circle instantly, illustrating his belief that there was more to come.

He was right.

De Gea denies Mata
A hungry Welbeck battled with Branislav Ivanovic in the area, leading to the award of United’s second spot-kick, though the replay suggested minimal contact and Andr√© Villas-Boas labelled the decision “absurd”.

Rooney kept his cool once again, despatching the ball to Cech’s left as he leapt in the opposite direction.

Chelsea players, aggrieved at the soft nature of referee Howard Webb’s penalty decision, appeared to self-destruct. Villas-Boas replaced a disgruntled Sturridge with Oriol Romeu, a negative substitution further handing momentum to United.

Ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho declared his frustration on numerous occasions with regard to lesser teams “parking the team bus” in front of goal to prevent superior opposition from scoring. Ironically, this was the modern Chelsea’s tactic and it failed.

Paul Scholes enjoyed a cameo role, exhibiting a flawless array of passes, but it was his only senior teammate Ryan Giggs that provided the pinpoint cross for Hernandez to nod United onto equal terms.

De Gea went someway to recovering his heavily tarnished reputation with two highly acrobatic displays, reiterating his shot-stopping skills and while question marks still remain over his aerial ability, he earned some welcome respite from his critics.
Villas-Boas left frustrated

An explosive second half culminated in stalemate, but owing to the manner of the result, Chelsea’s players trudged off the pitch in disappointment having sacrificed such a handsome lead.

As the current champions continue to be lambasted by some section of the media who will talk of two points dropped, their rivals will have viewed their spirited performance as a sign of danger that their best is yet to come.

Wayne Rooney spearheaded United’s assault, epitomising his manager’s tenacious character and even showed shades of Ferguson in his post-match interview, stating,  “We fought well and that point could win us the league… all the City players sitting there at home won't have enjoyed watching us recover, the way we fought back and the spirit of the team.”

As the march towards 'squeaky-bum time' gathers pace, City maintain the upper hand, but Rooney issued a kind reminder that United, inadequate as they may be, "will be there right to the end".

Written by Dom Wallace


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