Last time we caught sight of Manchesterford United in the league, we were unbeaten and four points ahead of them. At the end of an ugly afternoon we still had a point in hand, but since then they’ve disappeared over the horizon with a turn of speed that suggests their collective arse was on fire.
As of today, with a 22 point gap, 30 games played and marooned in fourth place, we cannot mathematically catch them. Their closest rivals, City, are highly unlikely to bridge a 15 point gap either. So by the time we get to Ye Olde Trafford in May, they could already be champions or, God forbid, might be crowned the day Chelsea are there. Even worse, the game will probably have serious implications in the unseemly scramble for the Champions League places; a race from which we seem unable to extricate ourselves, despite numerous opportunities to do so. Thus, the unedifying spectacle of women being elbowed aside and babies cast to the vasty deeps as the mad scramble for the Champions League lifeboat gets fiercer, will amuse United fans as they watch from the Terra Firma of a Premiership title.
Oh yes, the pendulum of footballing power has not only swung firmly northwards since October, but gave us a right whack on the side of the head while doing so.
And yet, as we struggle to digest a slice of football’s humble pie, so poorly baked it attracts only derision from the judges in the Great British Bake Off, there are a few precious sips of cool, clean water to help wash down the worst of the claggy, stale crust of disappointment.
We have beaten the champions-elect in two cup tournaments this season. The first, in the Capital One Cup was played in the shadow of “Scuppered” Sunday and featured teams that were neither clubs’ strongest line-ups (particularly United’s young defence). So while any victory was welcome, this one was of a Tom Cruise-like stature that required you to be standing in a big hole in order to look it in the eye.
The victory in the FA Cup was perhaps a more genuine cause for muted celebration, coming as it did on top of recovering from a two goal deficit at their place. It is perhaps not stretching it too far to claim that Sir Alex would have quite liked a Double to douse the nagging sense that his team is not quite what it should be; more dogged than spangly and still irked by their exit from the Champions League. Though to be honest, this is pure speculation for the purpose of inflating my general sense of well being brought about by Monday’s win.
And let’s face it, I would settle for “just” a domestic league title any time. In a country wedded to the concept of asset inflation as the only means to economic well being, it’s no surprise that there’s a corrupting idea gaining traction that says dominating your 38 game league is no longer proof enough of quality. You must deliver doubles, trebles, Champions Leagues, to be considered worthy.
But, as McCarthy might have said, “Enough of being reasonable towards the Reds.”
Chelsea played around 170 minutes of football without conceding a goal against United – Fact.
Strange times we live in. And I don’t think it’s too much of a liberty to suggest that the second half at Old Trafford influenced Fergie’s thinking when it came to Monday’s game. The injury to Rooney aside, and that’s a sizeable unit to be pushing to one side, putting Jones in alongside Carrick looked like a move to stifle Chelsea and counter the Mikel–Ramires tandem to some extent. So there was a little less swash and more buckle to United for a lot of the game.
Indeed, both teams took some time to get going. No surprise, really, given that early kick-offs are often slow burners. But in the end the chaps did enough. The contrast between their determination to close space and track runners was a sobering contrast to Saturday’s limp effort. Only the injury to Cole put a damper on the day. Ba’s goal was brilliant, Cech’s save stupendous and the win maybe just about deserved. I do think with better finishing the game could have been settled earlier as Chelsea carried more attacking threat for longer, but towards the end Van Persie should have cashed in what was, for him, a relatively comfortable chance.
What I take away from these games is a sense that in any given match, we are much closer to United than the 22 point gap suggests. There is the guts of a decent team, plus back up, already on the books. What is lacking, of course, is anywhere near the consistency that United have achieved. Irrespective of the Rafa debate, it goes without saying that at a time when the squad is undergoing change, particularly with the introduction of a number of new young players, the lack of stability and continuity of ideas was bound to take its toll.
In some ways we are reminiscent of an older Chelsea; talented, but unable to deliver over the long haul; just too many inexplicably poor performances against mediocre opposition, but shiny bright on a Cup day.
The Guardian, Daniel Taylor: “It will probably register as the most satisfying result of Rafael Benítez’s short and difficult time in office and not just because it was possibly the first time he was spared the condemnation of Chelsea’s supporters. His team can look forward to an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City and, after all the personal indignities Benítez has suffered, he will probably not care too much that it was such a scruffy game to get them to Wembley.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “Chelsea’s love affair with the FA Cup continues. This was a huge victory for the holders, a result that lends lustre to a strange season, a win rooted in the brilliance of Demba Ba at connecting with a dropping ball. Fittingly, Ba’s goal was watched by the 88-year-old Roy Bentley, the legendary Chelsea forward who himself scored a spectacular goal to knock Manchester United out of the Cup at the same quarter-final stage back in 1950. United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had warned his players of Ba’s threat, reminding them of the hooked finish that the Senegalese striker scored against them at St James’ Park on Jan 4, 2012. Rio Ferdinand was caught out that day by Ba’s movement and was second best again.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “At the final whistle, Benitez tugged his jacket around him, shook Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand for the second time that afternoon and left Stamford Bridge to its own celebrations. After losing to Southampton on Saturday, being allowed to slip away was far preferable to the consequences of another defeat. In recent years, Chelsea have, in the modern parlance, owned the FA Cup, so a place in the semi-finals against Manchester City on 14 April is the very least the support expect.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “The Blues march into the semi-finals of the FA Cup and a Wembley date with Manchester City as Demba Ba scored the only goal of the game to overcome Manchester United.”
(Image credit: Flickr/Engage for Education.)