Chelsea 3-3 Man United: Daily Mirror match report
Published 21:37 05/02/12 By Martin Lipton
They may not be a title-winning side – but nobody can doubt they have the courage of champions.
Last night, as Chelsea went from heroes to zeroes in the space of half an hour and United made the opposite journey, the enduring truth of every Sir Alex Ferguson side was illustrated once again at a freezing Stamford Bridge.
There have been many better United teams. Ferguson, for all he rails against such criticism of his men, will know that all too well.
When David Luiz’s header flicked off Rio Ferdinand’s shoulder to cap five minutes of defensive madness and put Chelsea three up and seemingly in cruise control, with the Bridge aflame in delight, what followed would have been inconceivable.
There was only, surely, one winner. Only, surely, one outcome. Only, surely, smiles for Roberto Mancini. Previous Chelsea sides, as well, would not have crumbled.
Yet United, even a United side which is a pale imitation of the great ones of the recent past, simply do not know when they are beaten, do not understand the concept of a lost cause.
Yes, Andre Villas-Boas will argue, they were given a helping hand by referee Howard Webb, certainly on the second of the two penalties converted with staggering calmness by Wayne Rooney.
But once the opportunity was there, once the possibility came alive, once Chelsea’s confidence evaporated as swiftly as the air escaping from a punctured tyre, there was an inevitability about the end game.
And as Javier Hernandez rose, unchallenged, six yards out to glance home Ryan Giggs’ cross and rescue a point, the sheer spirit of United had once again chiseled out a result from the most unlikely of circumstances.
It may not be enough, especially if Mancini’s Manchester City keep winning, certainly not if United do not sort it out at the back.
Even though United did get a point – not matching their remarkable win from three down at White Hart Lane in 2003 – they lost ground on the leaders.
Yet 90 minutes which explained just why the Premier League is the world’s favourite version of the game, which delivered far more in real spectacle than all the false glitter and glamour on display at the NFL showpiece in Indianapolis last night, were truly engrossing.
The jeers that greeted Villas-Boas’ team at the end – far less unpleasant than that which met every touch from Ferdinand – were unfair, too.
That, though, is what happens when a team is perceived to have thrown away victory, when supporters feel that the officials have conspired against them. There would have been none of that before the first United penalty.
Indeed, Webb allowed Jose Bosingwa to escape for a blatant tug on Ashley Young and then decided debut-making Gary Cahill had got the ball before sending Danny Welbeck tumbling in the first half.
United were bossing the game, only a terrific intervention by Branislav Ivanovic preventing Welbeck tapping in Rooney’s pass, before the Serb’s heel accidentally sent Juan Mata’s ball to Danny Sturridge nine minutes before the interval.
Sturridge walked around Patrice Evra – the defender’s sluggishness perhaps the belated effect of other recent events – and smashed across goal, the ball flicking off David De Gea’s leg onto luckless Johnny Evans’ chest and over the United goal-line.
Cech saved thrillingly from Young, Welbeck and Rooney before the break, but, 24 seconds into the second period, Fernando Torres’ deep cross was thundered home on the volley by Mata.
The Spaniard’s technique and quality were truly acceptable, and soon afterwards the baying home fans relished Ferdinand’s misfortune after Luiz got the first touch to Mata’s free-kick.
But that was all before Sturridge’s clip on Evra was viewed as a spot-kick by Mr Webb, Rooney finding the top corner.
If that was soft but arguable, the second was harder to justify, Welbeck looking for Ivanovic’s leg and making sure of contact before striking the ground with no outside aid. By now Hernandez had been followed on to the pitch by Paul Scholes, Rooney the Pied Piper leading Chelsea a merry dance, only Cech’s defiance – three times – preventing the England ace levelling.
From the third of those saves, though, Giggs latched on to the loose ball, picked out Hernandez’s run for the ‘Little Pea’ to nod home despite Cech’s touch.
Time for a winner, prevented when Raul Meireles headed over before De Gea brilliantly denied Mata’s free-kick.
Yet it felt like a victory for United, was treated like a defeat for Chelsea. Only in the Premier League.