Watching Chelsea vs. Manchester United this morning, the first thing I noticed was how easily United seemed to be controlling the match in the first half.
They seemed relaxed and confident, but didn't look especially threatening before Wayne Rooney's sudden stunningly silky contribution, after Branislav Ivanovic let him have a little too much space.
Another thing that was noticeable early on was that referee Martin Atkinson was trying to let the game flow. He wasn't going to give free kicks as freely as other referees seem to these days. He, in fact, seemed to be favoring Chelsea slightly, which at first I didn't think I was seeing—but after the free kick against Patrice Evra for the "foul" on Fernando Torres, I thought that something must be up.
Considering it led to Chelsea's best chance of the half with Van Der Sar pulling off a stunning triple save on the goal line, it's quite laughable that it wasn't referred to all that much in the aftermath. There was no way it was a free kick—if anything, it should have been a drop ball because Torres turned blindly and ran straight into Evra. Somehow the ref saw a foul. It's laughable.
Soon after this, Luis Nani was up in the top corner being harried by Ivanovic. The Portuguese international was almost tackled, but he pulled off a neat little trick which sent the ball rolling past the Serb and which would have had Nani on the by-line bearing down on Petr Cech's goal—but Ivanovic literally threw him into touch and Atkinson waved play on, with Nani being warned afterward for being so aggrieved by Ivanovic's behavior.
The game progressed to the halftime break and a respite from what had been a rather intense first 45 minutes.
Chelsea sprang out of the blocks in the second half, like a deranged greyhound intent on tearing its rabbit nemesis to shreds. They looked a different side, almost ruthlessly energized and leaving United slightly off the pace. Chelsea looked like the Chelsea that the football world has come to know over the past few years—movement with pace and guile, precision passing and creating the overlaps they needed to put United under serious pressure.
The pressure built like two tectonic plates pushing against one other with seismic fury, eventually causing an earthquake in the United rearguard when center-back David Luis executed a textbook finish—putting the ball away at the far post after Nani ignored Evra's clear hand signal for him to drop-in and help. The unmarked Brazilian struck the ball home with a finish that would have made Pele proud.
Soon after this, United seemed to get a bit of verve back and were moving forward via Evra, Nani and Rooney when Rooney attempted to play a one two and was up-ended by Luis, who had already been booked for a similar foul on the Englishman.
Inexplicably, the two linesman and the referee failed to see this, which seemed at the time to be completely and utterly unbelievable.
About four or five minutes later, the newly introduced Yuri Zhirkov was tackled by Chris Smalling—luckily for Zhirkov the ball bounced back to him and then off him and went past Smalling who Zhirkov then ran into, drawing a terribly soft penalty as referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.
United seemed so far off the boil after the first half by this point that it seemed to be the game winning moment—and it was, particularly with Frank "Thunderbolt" Lampard taking the penalty kick.
Chelsea held on, not really having too many things to worry about as United for once couldn't muster their characteristic late game reserves of energy and belief.
Alex Ferguson has ranted and raved in the aftermath about how it was unfair and how the referee was terrible. Perhaps he's right. Perhaps the referee did slightly favor those in Blue.
The thing is, this season United have benefited several times from refereeing decisions and cannot really complain when this type of thing goes against them. It's almost a moment of karma, where the balance is made and where the slate is wiped clean.
The terrible thing for United is that it comes at such a crucial moment—a time when the season hangs in the balance and where Arsenal, while wounded after their stumble against Birmingham in the astonishing League Cup final, are breathing right down the necks of the Old Trafford outfit.
The next opponent for United is none other than the old enemy, Liverpool—the very club that Ferguson is driven to surpass in his quest for the Manchester club's 19th league title. Arsenal, of course, will need to bounce back and win the games they need to—but at this moment the title race is actually back on, as I hinted it might be only a few weeks back in an article which provoked all sorts of crazed abuse from United fans.
The title race is back on and United have had their dose of karma. Why it always seems to happen at Stamford Bridge is another story, but it's certainly revitalized a title race that seemed quite stale only a couple of weeks ago.
If "King Kenny" can throw up an immovable object, it could be the stopping of the United juggernaut—allowing the Arsenal to sneak in the back door to the trophy that they would have definitely swapped for the League Cup.
So, steel yourselves for an interesting round of fixtures. It could well be a round that goes down in history as the moment Arsenal shake off their tag of chokers—or, on the other hand, it could also be the round in which Ferguson and Manchester United make a huge step toward becoming the undisputed kings of English football.
A season that looked dead has a bit of a sting in its tail, and who would want it any other way?
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