Usually, you’d say there’s no such thing as a moral victory in football. The table will record three points for the trophyless side of Manchester and none for us, and, as we all know – especially those of us who remember Ancelotti’s team taking the title by a single point in a season where no team in England was all that terribly good – the table doesn’t lie. As the great José understood so well, and as so many of his successors have discovered as they’ve opened their P45s, it’s all about winning. This was a major home game against one of the teams we’re hoping to compete with for the league title, and – for the first time this season – we’ve come away with no points.
You can tell a lot about a game, I always think, from the mood of the crowd as we file out onto the Fulham Road. Under ordinary circumstances a home defeat leaves the faithful somewhere between rage, shock and/or despairing resignation.
These, of course, were not ordinary circumstances.
Perhaps it was just me, but the impression I got as I climbed onto the southbound District Line was a kind of quietly defiant pride. People were checking their mobiles and ringing their mates, to confirm what most of us knew anyway even without the benefit of replays and close-ups: that a terrifically exciting game, featuring perhaps the most determined and skilful and coherent thirty minutes of attacking football this young and developing team have achieved to date, was destroyed by a grotesquely unprofessional and genuinely bizarre refereeing brainfart.
A moral victory, then? Pragmatists will say there’s no such thing in a game of football, and they might be right.
But is it really still a game of football when it’s eleven versus nine? With twenty minutes to play? I have dim memories of a game at the Bridge many years ago when Leeds held out against us for a draw after two red cards, and one might argue that our almost comically bloody-minded defensive effort at the Camp Nou last spring was something other than a competitive football match, but really, everyone knew once Torres trudged off that the game was effectively over. (No point complaining about Hernandez being offside for the winner, really: the goal would have come eventually. United were pretty average when put under pressure, but once relieved of the requirement to defend, the strength of their finishing was always going to tell.)
So the actual result was taken out of the equation long before the ninety minutes were up. What were we left to contemplate as we waited for inevitable defeat to be confirmed? Judging by the mood of the departing crowd, I think quite a few of us were thinking about that half hour either side of half time when we’d made a United team with what should have been a comfortable lead look like an extended family of particularly hapless rabbits caught in the headlights of a turbocharged steamroller.
We lost to my least favourite team on the planet, and we conceded two goals within fifteen minutes. But we learned a lot about what our young midfield five are capable of, and until the game was taken away from us I think we’d left everyone in the crowd in no doubt about which of the two teams on display was the better.
All right. For those who can stomach it, here’s a quick recap.
The selection was as expected, with Ramires preferred to Frank. United began as any team that knows what it’s doing should begin against us: putting maximum pressure on the man in possession, especially when the man in possession is Juan Mata. With three minutes gone, Hazard, deep in his own half, played a ball to Mata’s feet when a safer option was required; Mata was swiftly bundled out of the way, the defence was in disarray, and after a simple run down the wing, a cut-back and a couple of ricochets, the arch-poacher Van Persie put us a goal down.
Some ten minutes later we were exposed again on our left side, possession lost too easily and the counter-attack impressively clinical. With Cashley miles out of position, Crazy David came across to defend the cross, thoughtfully tucking his hands behind his back to avoid the risk of a penalty; the ball went straight between his feet to Van Persie, who finished without fuss.
Two-nil: and yet the signs were there. We were beginning to move the ball more quickly and to beat the close markers. Oscar in particular was showing breathtaking balance and close control. With the exception of Rafael and Valencia down the United right (both played very well going forward) we were making our opponents look rather ponderous: perhaps this was complacency on their part, as they sat in to defend what ought to have been a comfortable lead.
Within ten minutes the word “comfortable” had been erased from their collective dictionary. A sharply dipping free kick had De Gea stumbling and sticking his foot out like a pub team keeper. Obi, of all people, showed up in their penalty area and whacked a cross off some portion of Evans which rebounded against the outside of the post. De Gea fumbled away a Cahill header, and then made a spectacular save to keep out an effort from (I think) Nando. We were running around them, through them, past them, Oscar and Mata manoeuvring the ball through spaces lesser footballers wouldn’t even have seen, let alone exploited. On the edge of the box, Hazard sprinted away from Rooney, who brought him down with positively Scholesean haplessness; Mata’s free kick was yet another reminder of why we’re beginning to whisper comparisons between him and the current manager of Watford FC. He was close to prodding in an equaliser only a couple of minutes later.
It’s not often that the team gets applauded off at half time when losing at home. They deserved it.
The second half began a little more warily, but it soon became evident that the trophy-free Mancs were still happy to defend their lead. Before long we were attacking with gusto again. Some wonderfully energetic play from Mata rescued a ball that looked to be going out, similar work from Oscar kept it alive, and Ramires barrelled in from deep midfield to finish off.
It would be nice to say that at that stage there was only one winner. For a long stretch the Mancs’ play had been as barren of effort and invention as their cabinet is of trophies. To be fair, they woke up once their lead was gone, and began to make a bit more of an effort, though not to any great effect. The game evened out. It looked for all the world like it was going to be a fantastic last thirty minutes.
And then …
The Bits We All Want To Talk About
The Branners incident first.
It was down at the other end of the ground from where I sit. He was certainly attempting a fair tackle. I don’t know whether he got the ball: I haven’t seen replays or heard any chatter about it. Once a foul was given it was always going to be a red card. I didn’t sense rage emanating from the crowd. I can understand the referee’s decision, whether or not retrospective viewing proves it to have been right or wrong.
In fact – this bears saying – I think the ref was at that stage having a good game, letting the right challenges go, playing good advantages, generally contributing to a terrific spectacle.
And then, suddenly, he wasn’t.
Here’s how it looked to me in real time. (I haven’t seen replays.) Nando was released upfield. We were a man down and clearly weren’t going to over-commit: no one really went with him. He ran straight at three defenders. He was never going to score from that situation. He beat the first defender for pace, was clipped and went down. The clip happened more or less exactly in line with where I sit. Obviously I couldn’t see the contact itself from the fifth row of the East Stand Upper but everyone knows what it looks like when someone goes over without being touched, and no one sitting anywhere near me thought for a second that it was anything other than a foul.
The referee marched up, reaching for his pocket, and we all thought, “Oh, that wasn’t really a yellow card trip, but okay, we’ll take a booking for the defender if you’re going to give it to us, thanks mate.”
Then the yellow to Torres; then the red.
There’s no real need to waste words on the abysmal uselessness of this decision. First, it was wrong: Nando didn’t dive. But all right: referees make mistakes. Second, it wasn’t in the penalty area; it wasn’t a particularly dangerous run; even if it had been a dive, it surely didn’t represent a particularly heinous attempt to gain an advantage. It would have been a common or garden dive, the sort of vaguely speculative effort that usually results in nothing more than a few mildly outraged jeers from opposing fans. Third, Nando had already been (rightly) booked. Fourth, we were already a man down. Already a man down!
Referees have to judge what they see. But what kind of act of simulation would be so heinous that it would be worth even considering effectively cancelling the game by reducing a team to nine men? Diving is annoying, unpleasant and embarrassing, but is a gentle tumble way outside the box really the kind of evil that requires that kind of sanction? We’ve seen some proper divers. We watched dear old Arjen Robben for two years, throwing his heels up and flicking back his head and closing his eyes and grimacing as if he’d just been electrocuted. We witnessed even dearer old Didier Drogba tumbling and thrashing around and clutching his shins. However the referee interpreted what he saw, it can’t have been anywhere in the same league. If what he thinks Nando did is a yellow card, then Suarez will never play a full ninety minutes again, and tens and hundreds of players, including our own Hazard, will accumulate yellows on a weekly basis.
Anyway. I said I wouldn’t waste words on it. It was a nonsense.
There’s no point talking about what happened after that. It was pointless. The players might have dug in and gritted their teeth and done their best – JT sure as dammit would have – but the winner was going to come, offside or no offside.
We’re conceding too cheaply. We’ve lost two games in a row. There are times when we look too much like the Arse, sacrificing penetration for more short passes.
But we’re a new team in a new formation. We have Oscar and Mata. We’re a lot higher up the league than we ought to be. And, frankly, we wuz robbed.
I’ll take the moral victory, just this once.
The Press Reports
The Guardian, Daniel Taylor: “It was a wild and eccentric match that finished amid great controversy and, from Chelsea’s point of view, a thick portfolio of grievances about the incidents that accompanied Manchester United’s first league win at Stamford Bridge for a decade.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “This terrific sporting encounter, a game spiced by the brilliance of Robin van Persie and Juan Mata, was scarred by some poor defending, some hapless decision-making by the officials and a claim from Chelsea that the referee, Mark Clattenburg, used “inappropriate language” to John Obi Mikel.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “As the extra stewards were deployed around the mouth of the tunnel and the home crowd focused their outrage exclusively on the man in black, Mark Clattenburg will have had that growing sense of dread that in modern football’s high court of HD super slo-mo replays, he had been found guilty of error.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea suffered our first defeat of the Barclays Premier League season after being reduced to nine men in a frantic second half at Stamford Bridge. Having fallen two goals behind early we clawed our way back into the game and level, only for Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres to be sent off within minutes of each other, allowing United to prise back control of the game and grab a dubious winner through substitute Javier Hernandez.”
(Image courtesy of Flickr/infobunny.)