Manchester United Get the Breaks, Take Advantage in Dramatic Win over Chelsea
And it delivered big-time, with high theater, boiler-pot tension and, almost inevitably, finger-pointing controversy.
United won 3-2 after blowing an early two-goal lead, and victory sent the Red Devils within one point of Chelsea at the top of the table. Mexican international striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez scored the second-half winner from a suspiciously offside-looking position after Chelsea had seen Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres sent off.
For the Blues, it was a painful first loss of the campaign, one that will leave Roberto Di Matteo's men feeling especially aggrieved after a string of refereeing decisions went the other way.
About those calls. The short version is this:
The officials were right (with Ivanovic being the last defender), then probably wrong (with Torres having supposedly dived, despite clear contact, moments before he was to be substituted) then definitely wrong (with Chicharito's poached but excellently taken winner), and regardless of accuracy, all the decisions benefited United.
The long version will be debated for days, weeks and possibly months if the title race remains tight.
That's a shame, too. This match was good enough already. Both teams took turns of dominance and with 25 minutes left, the winner's identity was a tantalizingly open question.
(UPDATE: Chelsea have accused referee Mark Clattenburg of using a racial slur against midfielder Mikel John Obi during the match. Clattenburg has agreed to cooperate with what's sure to be a thorough investigation (via The Guardian). END OF UPDATE)
Now, though, the title race is on in earnest, and if Sunday's match was any hint, it will be a feisty, fierce ride until May.
The pre-match calm lasted mere moments after the handshake between old-friends-turned-antagonists Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole. Inside a quarter of an hour, the visitors were threatening to make this high-stakes title tilt a laugher.
United started strongly and turned their early superiority into a two-goal lead with high pressure and a series of swift, lethal counters down Chelsea's left. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson opted for width, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young flanking Wayne Rooney in his new central playmaking role.
Chelsea, on the other hand, suffered without the leadership of suspended captain John Terry. With David Luiz and Gary Cahill starting in the middle of defense, the Blues struggled during United's dominant period, especially down Cole's left side.
The goals, not surprisingly, came courtesy of United's two most famous attackers.
Rooney served as architect of both, while Robin van Persie applied the lethal touches (though admittedly the first ricocheted off the crossbar and in off Luiz). It was all a bit too easy for Ferguson's men, and at 2-0 up, their lead seemed secure.
346 - Manchester United have been 2+ goals up in 346 Premier League games and have never lost (W336 D10). Safe.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 28, 2012
United remained the superior side for the opening half-hour—that is, until Chelsea's big three went to work. By halftime the Blues had pulled a goal back and given the home fans reason to believe in a dramatic fightback.
That faith, it turned out, was well-placed.
So often this season, the attacking trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have supplied the inspiration for Chelsea. Sunday was no different, except that the heaviest lifting was being done by the tiny magician Mata.
The Spaniard hauled Chelsea back into the contest with a gorgeous free-kick goal in Minute 44 and nearly equalized a minute later following a poor United clearance. The goal capped a dominant 15-minute spell for the hosts and underlined the immense—and still growing—influence Mata wields on Di Matteo's title contenders.
If it was game on at that point, it was title race on in Minute 53 and afterward.
Mata was again the engineer as Chelsea equalized seven minutes after the restart. First he created the initial danger with a deep run. Then he supplied the first cross that eventually led to Ramires' headed equalizer.
All things being equal, Chelsea would have seemed the more likely victor at that point. But after a series of controversial refereeing decisions, the title race swung in favor of Manchester United.
Whether or not United reclaim the title this year is still a question without an answer. On Sunday, though, we found conclusively that both United and Chelsea have the ingredients for a memorable title run.
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