The crescendo of noise that erupted around Old Trafford at the final whistle on Sunday signified one thing: Title No. 19 is imminent.
Goals from Javier Hernandez and captain Nemanja Vidic sealed the win for United. Despite Frank Lampard reducing the deficit with 20 minutes left, the Red Devils looked comfortable throughout.
The cacophony of noise that greeted the final whistle confirmed that Manchester United are just one point from reclaiming their Premiership crown, and it would take nothing short of a miracle to deny them the title now.
The game itself was surprisingly one-sided, as Sir Alex Ferguson watched his men ruthlessly sweep Chelsea aside in a game that most pundits agreed was the title decider; the contrasting elation and dejection on the faces on both teams at the final whistle all but confirmed their suspicions.
Old Trafford was a cauldron of noise before kick off and the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ was in dreamland 36 seconds into the game. Only a small, motionless pocket of blue, amongst a sea of red, stayed silent, fearing that the next 90 minutes would signal the end of their bid to defend their Premier League title.
Unfortunately for them, they were correct.
United went ahead after just 36 seconds and never looked back. Hernandez latched onto a perfectly weighted through-ball from the imperious Park Ji-Sung and Chicharito slotted the ball past Petr Cech to score his 20th goal of the season.
The last man to achieve this feat in his debut season at Old Trafford was Ruud van Nistelrooy; United fans across the globe will hope that the young Mexican can have the same impact as the Dutchman in his time in Manchester.
His pace and the timing of his runs has been too much for most Premiership defenders this year, and Chelsea’s were no exception. David Luiz, who endured a torrid afternoon before being substituted at half-time, failed to intercept the pass, and John Terry was caught flat-footed as Park slotted the ball through to Hernandez.
The Mexican did the rest, and Old Trafford was rocking.
Chelsea looked stunned, and the sheer speed with which United began the game was too much for the Blues. The Red Devils pressed on and a second goal looked imminent.
However, the overworked Cech kept United at bay, pushing away a thunderous 25-yard drive from Wayne Rooney and denying Park, while Hernandez was inches from doubling his tally when he failed to make contact with a deep cross only a couple of yards from goal.
Chelsea were not allowed to settle. They looked laboured and slow, and failed to test United’s backline, who were without regular Patrice Evra, who missed out following a thigh strain.
Ferguson’s tactics almost mirrored those he employed when his side knocked Chelsea out of the Champions’ League last month. Rooney starting in attack with Hernandez, who played off the last man with devastating effect, while the Englishman dropped deep to dictate the pace of the play and prevented Michael Essien from having any sort of impact on the game.
United’s midfield hassled and hurried Chelsea into mistakes, with Park’s industrious play again showing why Sir Alex trusts him in the big-games. He recorded the most tackles of any player on the pitch, all the while offering the attacking threat that many thought United would lack when he was selected over Nani.
Ferguson’s team looked balanced, in direct contrast to Chelsea, who had few answers for United’s approach.
Carlo Ancelotti favoured Didier Drogba over record-signing Fernando Torres, but the Ivorian was well marshaled by Vidic throughout. Holding midfielder John Obi Mikel struggled to contain United’s attack and had little bearing on the match.
In contrast, the much-criticised Michael Carrick showed his worth to United by breaking up play and carefully distributing passes in a manner that Mikel was unable to achieve. He offered a defensive platform from which United could build, while allowing Ryan Giggs to display the poise, creativity and guile that he has displayed throughout his 20-year career.
The Welshman again demonstrated that age is no object, and turned in another outstanding performance, which would be even more remarkable had we not become so accustomed to it throughout the season already.
Indeed, Giggs began the move that ended with Chicharito’s goal, and he played an ever bigger part in United’s second.
Ironically, Chelsea had just started to gain a foothold in the game when Vidic struck, with keeper Edwin van der Sar denying Drogba and his compatriot, Saloman Kalou.
Giggs was instrumental in the move, as he effortlessly glided around Kalou following a short corner, and delivered a delicate cross onto the head of the onrushing Vidic.
With a two-goal cushion, United looked content to finally give their opponents a little breathing space, and the action dried up as the teams approached half-time.
Branislav Ivanovic, who endured a harrowing afternoon, was fortunate to stay on the pitch when he fouled Rooney on two separate occasions, having already picked up a caution for fouling the same man, while Rooney received a caution of his own for a tackle on David Luiz.
United eventually headed in at the break looking comfortable, while Ancelotti searched for a way he could keep his side’s title ambitions alive.
The Chelsea boss replaced Luiz and Mikel with the Brazilian duo of Alex and Ramires, but the Manchester-outfit remained the team on the front foot.
Park continued to torment his opponents in his usual tireless manner, while Antonio Valencia achieved what Cristiano Ronaldo never could when he got the better of Ashley Cole on the other wing.
Cole had no answer for Valencia’s speed and directness, and the Ecuadorian’s attacking threat prevented Cole from providing a threat of his own.
The first significant action of the second half came from the right wing too, when Valencia beat Ashley Cole, only to see his cross clearly handled by Lampard. To be fair to Lampard, the handball was accidental, but the Englishman’s arm was above his body when he blocked the cross and it would not have been unfair to award the spot kick.
Howard Webb gave nothing to United’s dismay, as he apparently set about disproving the theory that he, or other referees, give Ferguson’s men preferential treatment, and Webb again denied United’s claims for a penalty when Valencia was tripped in the box by John Terry.
Instead, Chelsea grabbed hold of a lifeline when Lampard poked home following Ivanovic’s flick-on. The Blues suddenly had a way back into the game, completely against the run of play, but it was almost immediately forgotten; it took a fantastic goal-line block from Alex to prevent Rooney slotting the ball into an empty net after great work from Valencia and Hernandez.
Torres, who was introduced moments before Chelsea’s goal, looked out of sorts at the other end. The striker had no bearing on the game, despite playing for half an hour and he gave few problems to Ferdinand and Vidic.
Meanwhile, in complete contrast, Rooney stalked the Chelsea goal dangerously, and it look another good save from Cech to prevent him wrapping up the points for United, before another of his goal-bound efforts was deflected over the bar.
Rooney’s return to form has been key in United’s surge for the title, and only some top-class defending and goalkeeping stopped him from scoring on Sunday. He may not have got him a goal this time around, but he threatened Chelsea at will, and currently looks unstoppable; in complete contrast to Torres, despite both men beginning the season in similar fashion.
Hernandez had one final chance to put the gloss on a United win, but for once his predatory instincts let him down as he headed Valencia’s cross over from point blank range following some incredible movement to make himself some space in the box.
Fortunately, the missed chances counted for nothing; the final whistle was blown, and ‘the Theatre of Dreams’ erupted in celebration.
No, United had no mathematically secured the title, but the world and its wife knows that one point from two remaining fixtures against Blackburn and Blackpool is inevitable.
Ferguson got his tactics spot on, and his players did not let him down. Chelsea, on the other hand, looked outmatched and Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure could be approaching its twilight hours.
All that remains is for Manchester United to officially reclaim the Premiership title, but even Carlo Ancelotti would be able to tell you that the title was won on Sunday.
Back in 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in Manchester promising to “knock Liverpool off their perch.”
Very few expected him to achieve it, but a remarkable 19th league title is now in sight.
As Fergie walked triumphantly to the dressing room at the game’s conclusion he stopped briefly in front of the Stretford End. For years, the fans have been bowing to Sir Alex; this time, the manager repaid the favour.
Manchester United were triumphant again; their record-breaking 19th League title as good as won.
Van der Sar (7), Fabio (6), Ferdinand (7), Vidic (8), O’Shea (6), Valencia (9), Carrick (8), Giggs (9), Park (9), Rooney (8), Hernandez (7); Subs: Smalling (6), Evans (6).
Cech (7), Ivanovic (5), Luiz (5), Terry (6), Cole (5), Mikel (5), Essien (5), Lampard (6), Kalou (6), Malouda (6), Drogba (6); Subs: Ramires (6), Alex (6), Torres (5).
Referee: Howard Webb (5)
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