The Observer, Paul Wilson: “Who would have thought it? Chelsea were not fibbing about Didier Drogba being injured after all, and once the sharp end of the visitors’ attack joined the sharp end of Manchester United’s on the sidelines this so-called heavyweight showdown resembled a shadow-boxing version of a title fight until the big man arrived to score the goal that possibly tips the title balance.”
Sunday Telegraph, Duncan White: “It is all very simple. Five games and five wins and Chelsea will be champions. With an impressive, aggressive performance in their rival’s own lair, they ripped the initiative from Manchester United and jumped to the top of the table. Now they just have to hold their nerve.”
Official Chelsea FC Website: “‘We are top of the league,’ sung the Chelsea contingent inside Old Trafford as they saluted a team that had delivered when the pressure was on – Joe Cole and Didier Drogba goals sending the Blues back to the summit.”
Some slightly topical faux-religious pre-match nonsense
Easter, it says here, is something of a time for resurrection. For us godless heathens, the bank holidays and near-endless mountain of chocolate tend to be of greater importance than the religious festival, but there is no doubt that something about Chelsea has risen and come back to life in the past week.
After Inter nailed our season to the cross and Blackburn applied the crown of thorns, it was difficult for even the most optimistic of Chelsea fans (and there aren’t too many of them) to look on the bright side of life. But as any football fan knows, you can be crucified one day and canonised the next.
Much as it was easy for Avram Grant to play Judas Iscariot in the eyes of the Blue faithful, Pompey were cast further into the desert with relative ease. And despite Martin O’Neill (an increasingly one trick pony at Premiership level?) playing the role of Pontius Pilate against us in the past, the seventh (ahem) day of his week brought no rest and the sight of his European holy grail slipping further away. Nope, he’s definitely not the Messiah.
One of Sky’s numerous pre-match HD plugging montages (see the sweat not flying off Michael Ballack in super slow-motion) did its slightly ham-fisted best to soundtrack the competition appropriately – “Mama Said Knock You Out”. We certainly couldn’t call it a comeback had we left Old Trafford with anything less than three points; defeat would have us bipolar folk casting ourselves back into the pit for all eternity, closely followed by ninety percent of the squad, Ancelotti and everyone else from Roman down to the office cat.
The game, recorded in real time notebook form
Pre-match. Largely avoided due to excessive Sky hyperbole. Redknapp, have a bloody shave, you oaf. Ruud looking suave and sophisticated, as always.
0 mins. No Drogba. Blimey – brave or suicidal? Time will tell.
10 mins. Mancs look a bit drained and leggy. Cheers to Bayern…
19 mins. Great run by Malouda – oh yes! Joe Cole’s first back-heel flick in two years that hasn’t been pointless – terrific goal.
25 mins. Are we really playing United?
26 mins. No, we can’t be – Park has just hit the deck inside the box and Dean hasn’t given a penalty. Parallel universe time.
27 mins. Oh yes, there we are – that’s the first trademark Scholes wild hack of the day. Bit more like it.
30 mins. I’m not sure what Gary Neville has just done to Anelka in the box, but I’m pretty certain that it isn’t in the laws of the game. No penalty, which is at least vaguely consistent.
39 mins. I don’t think United have had a shot on target yet, have they?
Half time. Neville booked a moment ago, about time. That was pretty good.
48 mins. Arse. Ferreira clean through, neither shot nor cross. Hope we don’t regret that.
52 mins. United finally starting to get going – need more beer.
60 mins. I’m glad Rooney isn’t playing – he’d have snaffled up some of these chances.
64 mins. Just bloody clear the thing! Thank you, Alex.
69 mins. Drogba on for Anelka. Makes sense.
70 mins. Deco booked for hacking Giggs. Get Ballack on?
74 mins. Kalou on for Joe Cole. Best performance from him for some time. Great goal too.
79 mins. Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrogbaaaaaaaaaaa! Christ, Fergie’s going to have a coronary over that. Yard and a half offside at least. Shame…
82 mins. Bugger. That looked like handball too.
83 mins onwards. Haze of beer, too many cupcakes and no small amount of swearing. Please make it stop.
93 mins. Thank heavens for that. Great result. I’m off for a lie down now.
- The first half performance. The purists would sneer if anyone dared liken it to Barcelona’s showing at the Emirates before the oranges came out, but it was almost as good to watch and had that little added extra – a goal.
- Carlo’s team selection. Possibly a brave move to leave Drogba on the bench, but with Anelka’s solo show up front against Villa playing a fairly sizeable part in the ensuing seven goal rout he had ‘one of those problems a manger likes to have’ (as the old cliché goes). Drogba’s introduction came as United were building a decent head of steam and it proved to be the pivotal substitution in the game.
- Florent Malouda. Our most improved player this season. The assist for our opening goal summed up how his game has developed under Hiddink and now Ancelotti; physical presence, determination and no small amount of skill.
- Joe Cole. Not the perfect performance, but if you want long term, big bucks contracts you have to deliver against your closest rivals when it really matters; goals at Old Trafford being a good example of what is required – a proper ‘rabbit from the hat’ goal from our own Easter bunny. Maybe fatherhood agrees with him.
- Second half performance. Harsh, but if we’re separating things into straightforward good / bad boxes, we let things slip a little too much. Deco’s excellent, buzzing first half tailed off into lazy passes and iffy tackles and we started to look a little laboured until the introduction of Drogba and Kalou which ultimately turned the game.
- The officials. No accusation of bias. See below.
The very old and showing it
- Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. The former’s inside the box ‘tackle‘ on Anelka was more Twickenham than Old Trafford and the sooner the latter hangs up his boots, the better. Too much has been written and said about how the ginger one ‘cannae tackle’ (insert wry Glaswegian chuckle), but there has always been a little too much unbridled spite and red mist about his efforts to dispossess the opposition for my liking. His swipe at Deco was petulant, but had his attempt to scythe Malouda down actually connected, the result could have been deeply unpleasant for the Frenchman. Time to go now boys.
The down-right eccentric
- Mike Dean and his officials. Fergie will rant, Carlo will cock a quizzical eyebrow, but your guess really is as good as mine. The Salvador Dali of refereeing, without the maverick brilliance or interesting facial hair. Just plain odd.
If we get out of this season with something to show for it, it really will be a ‘Great Escape’ of sorts. As such, players will be rated on a scale of characters portrayed by the late Steve McQueen. Yes, you can take your marks out of ten with an extra half point for a great cross and shove them where the Easter bunny wouldn’t burrow if you paid him all the dandelion leaves in the damned meadow.
- Cech – Doc McCoy
- Ballack – Tom Horn
- Mikel, Lampard, Terry, Alex – Fire Chief O’Halloran
- Deco, Kalou – Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere
- Zhirkov, Ferreira, Anelka – Bullitt
- Cole (J) – The Cincinnati Kid
- Drogba – Thomas Crown
- Malouda – The Cooler King
Man of the Match
Florent Malouda. Muscular, defence torturing wide play at its very best.
It says something about the rather cranky nature of this Premiership season that with less than half a dozen games to go, a definitive result in a game between the top two teams in the table may or may not mean something in the grand scheme of things come May 8th. Arsenal’s late, late show against Wolves leaves a three point gap between the top three, all of who have some potentially tricky fixtures ahead in the next month. You could give Stephen Hawking a slide rule, an abacus and Deep Blue and he’d struggle to tell you how this particular title race is going to turn out.
Much now rests on Carlo’s shoulders. I’ve always liked the ‘lucky manager over a good manager’ adage, as much as it is a load of old bunkum. From here on in, it is about seizing your opportunities – Mourinho was (usually) a master at doing so, today’s beaten boss pretty much wrote the book and even Benitez has had his moments.
And opportunity is knocking loudly for Signor Ancelotti. Very loudly indeed. Somehow, we find ourselves two points clear with five games to go in a Premiership season which has seldom followed the script, not to mention that we’re also ninety minutes – against a team that we comprehensively ruined last week – from another FA Cup final.
Whether by luck or by judgement, the manager has found a system which brings the best out in the players available and, if he remains brave enough to keep Drogba on the bench, there is a very potent option which you’d stake all your Easter eggs on if a game needs changing.
Seven, maybe six wins between now and mid May and you’re virtually immortal, Carlo. As a man once said when things went ‘down to the wire’ some years ago – it’s up for grabs now.