Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Schoolyard Football: United 3-1 Chelsea

It has been a strange but refreshing start to the Premiership season. Big games that had previously been cagey and cautious have produced an avalanche of goal and incident.

Mancini's Manchester City have even, unexpectedly, started to entertain. Judging from their loss of a two goal lead against Fulham at the weekend, that new outlook might have compromised their familiar defensive solidity. The absence of Nigel de Jong can't be helping that side of things either. But Nasri, Silva and Aguero are thrilling neutrals.

Two games involving the other big Manchester team have been emblematic of the adventurous start to the season. First, there was the unprecedented drubbing of Arsenal. Then, this weekend, another game of end-to-end attacking, mistakes, goals and glaring misses.

There could have been another ten goals, and this time they would have been shared more evenly. Chelsea, especially in the first half, were the better side, and can feel aggrieved to have lost by a two goal margin.

The goals were a mixture of the soft and the sublime. Early on, Smalling escaped the attentions of Chelsea's slack marking to power a header home from Ashley Young's swinging free kick. Replays showed he was marginally offside but the fact that Chelsea's players did not protest suggested that they had lost concentration. United doubled their lead with a spectacular strike from Nani, who collected the ball on the right (offside again?), swayed inside some challenges, and powered past a leaden footed Cech from the edge of the area. Right on half time, a Phil Jones run caused panic in Chelsea's rearguard, a floored John Terry attempted to clear, but the ball struck Nani and ran kindly for Rooney, who swept home from close range.

United had an interval lead that contradicted the balance of play. All their on-target shots had produced goals. They were attacking with menace at times, but Chelsea had peppered the United goal with efforts. Juan Mata was having an influence, and the Blues were playing with a swagger that suggested that Villas-Boas may be succeeding in starting to revolutionise their style of play.

Then again, there will only be rare occasions when they will face a midfield as open as United's was.

The first of the game's many glaring misses came at 1-0, and was surely crucial in shaping the outcome of the game. Mata attacked United's backline and released Torres in behind with a finely weighted pass. The Spaniard rightly squared the ball for Ramires, who seemed certain to score, but perhaps put off by Daniel Sturridge, stabbed a weak effort straight at the scrambling De Gea.

At half time, Villas Boas sized up Chelsea's predicament and, commendably, decided to chase the three goal deficit. He replaced Lampard with Anelka, moved the latter onto the left of the front three, and shifted Mata into the number 10 position. The change brought dividends almost straight from kick off. Anelka cut inside from the left, and played an excellent reverse through ball for Torres. The Spaniard, who was looking at last like his old self, full of pace and twists and turns, dinked imperiously over De Gea. It was a finish at odds with his wretched run of form over the last few months, and Chelsea were back in the game.

But now, with the schoolyard shape of the game continuing, it was United's turn to miss chances. Nani broke and smashed another thunderbolt off the bar. On the rebound, he was adjudged, harshly perhaps, to have been felled by Bosingwa. Rooney had a chance from the spot, but his standing leg gave way and he shanked the penalty wide.

He was wasteful again when an Evra run and cross found him six yards out. Rooney's left footed shot was scuffed, and dribbled off the post. Hernandez steamed onto the rebound but could only smash into the side netting, and was crippled for his troubles by Ashley Cole's nasty late challenge.

Shame then, with both sides missing easy chances, that the game will probably be remembered for the profligacy of one man, who may now struggle to ever reproduce the swagger of old. Torres was, along with Nani, the best player on the park. It was very much like watching the player of old only for one rather important factor- his finishing. While the goal was a beauty, there was a hat trick of head-in-hands moments. Early on, he conjured an opportunity for himself but snatched wide. Towards the game's final act, he jinked brilliantly on the edge of the area, and hit a decent left footed shot that was parried, but when the rebound bobbled his way, he leaned back and smashed skywards. Then, with only minutes left, the worst miss in a match of misses.

Again, there was brilliant play to make the chance. Ramires's through ball was incisive, and Torres confounded De Gea with a confident dummy. His touch brought him a little wide of goal, but the hard work was done and the finish should have been a formality. Maybe he relaxed too much, maybe he couldn't relax enough. The shot was tapped wide of the near post.

There was still time for one more scramble, as Rooney broke clear and squared to Berbatov, but a goal line clearance denied the Bulgarian's scuffed effort. United ran out, according to the scoreline, comfortable winners, but rarely has a scoreline been so misleading. Firstly, there should have been at least a few more goals. Secondly, Chelsea outplayed the hosts for long periods, particularly during a first half that somehow only produced goals for United.

While United's goalscoring exploits and their relentless attacking vigour are impressive, pundits are being a little rash in predicting a procession towards another league title. Statistics show that De Gea has been the busiest keeper in the whole league so far; as with City, United's new adventure has had an inevitable impact on their defensive solidity. The Champions can point, of course, to the absences of Ferdinand and Vidic. They have faced Arsenal and Chelsea with an unfamiliar back four featuring three youngsters, and while they never looked solid in either game, it doesn't matter much when you score eleven goals.

So the early advantage is undoubtedly theirs, but for City and, on this showing, Chelsea, there is still plenty of hope.

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