Back Page Football’s Ger McCarthy reviews Wednesday night’s Champions League quarter final first-leg tie from Stamford Bridge and highlights the main talking points from Manchester United’s 1-0 away victory over a disappointing Chelsea.
Quarter Final First-Leg,
Stamford Bridge, London,
Chelsea 0 Manchester United 1
Manchester United produced another typical 2010-2011 season workmanlike performance to record a merited 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final first leg thanks to a solitary strike from Wayne Rooney. It was Sir Alex Ferguson’s side’s first win at the Bridge since 2002 and Rooney’s vital away goal made it a night to remember for the Old Trafford club and its supporters.
The decision to include Rio Ferdinand in Manchester United’s starting XI proved an important one as the returning England international made a vital interception to prevent Fernando Torres from connecting with a diving header in the opening minutes. Wayne Rooney’s more withdrawn role from strike partner Javier Hernandez meant United’s hit-man found himself in a congested midfield on more than one occasion rather than on the shoulder of his Mexican strike partner.
Chelsea made all the early running but despite some good moments from a fired up Fernando Torres, Van der Sar was rarely threatened in the United goal and an even opening 10 minutes remained scoreless. A crowded midfield area was just what Sir Alex Ferguson would have hoped for as it forced Chelsea to either go long in search of Drogba and Torres or attempt quick counter-attacks from deep in their own half. Despite all the energy and crisp passing there was little in the way of goalmouth action with Park and Rooney at the hub of United’s few bright moments.
United slowly grew into the tie but failed to support Hernandez on enough occasions as the striker ploughed a lone furrow up front for the visitors. Drogba finally brought the previously subdued home crowd to their feet by exploding into the box and unleashing a thunderbolt goalwards which Van der Sar did brilliantly to touch over the crossbar. It was the only clear-cut chance of a frantic opening 20 minutes.
Just when it appeared Chelsea were on the verge of gaining control of the tie two of United’s stalwarts combined to break the deadlock on the half hour mark. Michael Carrick released Ryan Giggs and the Welsh winger controlled the ball at full speed, cut into the Chelsea penalty area past Ashley Cole and cut the ball back beautifully into the path of Wayne Rooney who expertly side-footed home from 12 yards to put United 1-0 in front.
Chelsea were stung into action following the concession of that opening goal but frustrated their home fans with a succession of attacks that petered out in the final third through poor passing and over -elaboration on the ball. Late in the half Fernando Torres dived in the box following a clumsy challenge from Vidic and Manchester United players were quick to surround the Spaniard to shout their displeasure at the Chelsea number nine’s antics. Chelsea pressed hard for a leveller just before the interval but United were happy to sit deep and soak up the Londoner’s pressure before breaking quickly. The home side came agonisingly close to an equaliser when Fernando Torres’ attempted flick came back off the upright and Patrice Evra was on hand to hack off the line from Frank Lampard’s rebound. It was a breathless end to a frenetic first half.
The Pensioners restarted in determined mood and a floated Drogba cross was met by the head of the in-rushing Ramires who headed wide from close range. An enforced substitution saw Rafael go off injured to be replaced by Nani with the excellent Valencia reverting to right back. United were under constant pressure now but their back four remained steadfast and the home side’s frustration grew.
Ancellotti made his first changes of the night with 20 minutes remaining with Malouda and Anelka coming on for Drogba and Zhirkov. The changes did not have the desired effect and United looked comfortable as the minutes ticked away. Torres stretched and just missed a Ramires cross then Essien flashed a first time volley just wide of the upright as Chelsea upped the tempo.
The home sides created their best opportunity of the second half with 15 minutes remaining when Torres flicked a header goalwards only for Van der Sar to stretch full length and finger-tip the Spaniard’s goal-bound header away to safety. The visitors’ work-rate was superb in the closing stages with Nani, Giggs, Carrick and Rooney working hard in the centre of the park to close Chelsea down.
Javier Hernandez also typified United’s dogged performance and came off for Dimitar Berbatov with 10 minutes remaining to loud cheers from the visiting fans. The diminutive Mexican saw little of the ball but nonetheless worked his socks off and pressured the Chelsea defence for the entire evening. A wild kick from Rio Ferdinand handed Chelsea a free-kick 50 metres from goal in the 81st minute and Frank Lampard stepped up to force a fine save out of the United goalkeeper.
Manchester United’s determination and will to win was still fresh in the final minutes with biting tackles from Carrick and Rooney preventing Chelsea from mounting a series of attacks. Ivanovic did burst through late on but the centre-back’s tame effort barely troubled Van der Sar. The game became stretched in the closing minutes with Nani denied by a brave Cech stop at one end and Anelka flicking a header over the crossbar under pressure from Evra at the opposite end of the field a minute later.
The tie ended in a welter of controversy when Patrice Evra hauled down Ramires when the Brazilian was about to pull the trigger 10 yards from goal. Chelsea were livid when the referee and the referee’s assistant behind the goal failed to award what looked a ‘stone-wall’ penalty kick. As if to compound the home side’s frustrations even further Torres was booked for a blatant dive in injury time which caused a brief flare-up between the teams. It proved the final act in a disappointing night for the London club and Ancellotti was quick to tell the referee his feelings as the match officials left the pitch.
All signs point to a Manchester United Champions League semi-final appearance unless Chelsea can up their game considerably and pull off a shock victory at Old Trafford in the second leg.