Smalling 8, Nani 37, Rooney 45 – Torres 46
Manchester United went two points clear of hometown rivals Manchester City after a pulsating encounter against Chelsea ended in a 3-1 victory. While United won by two clear goals, it was Chelsea who often looked the more dangerous of the two sides, and except for some woeful finishing and lackadaisical defending, Andre Villas-Boas’ side may well have been leaving Old Trafford with all three points.
Much pre-match talk centered on whether Fernando Torres would get the nod up front for Chelsea; his form had improved markedly in recent games, but he had been without a league goal for over 10 hours on the pitch. However, the Spaniard looked lively throughout, and was a menace to United’s young centre-back pairing of Phil Jones and Jonny Evans.
Although Chelsea started strongly, it was United found themselves ahead after Ashley Young’s teasing free-kick found Chris Smalling, who nodded past a helpless Petr Cech. There was more than a hint of offside about the goal, yet Frank Lampard’s marking was woeful, and this in association with his ineffectual passing led to his substitution for Nicolas Anelka at half time. The Frenchman made an immediate impact with a fantastic through-ball setting up Torres to cheekily dink past David de Gea, yet United already had the game all but sewn up by then.
Nani followed up Smalling’s opener with a sumptuous 25-yard strike (once again with a suspicion of offside); while the Portuguese winger hit the shot extremely well, the Czech keeper will perhaps be a little disappointed at his tepid attempt to stop it. By this stage Sir Alex Ferguson’s men were coursing with confidence, and after Jones made yet another driving run into his opponents’ penalty area, John Terry’s haphazard clearance hit Nani and fell invitingly to Wayne Rooney, who finished easily.
It was curious that while United had struggled to create clear-cut chances, they found themselves three goals up, which was perhaps a testament to Ferguson’s attacking set-up. The Scot later told Sky Sports that the young players were “quick and all want to go forward…sometimes we didn’t even have any midfield players.” The key to victory in these close encounters is that while certain players may at times looked out of sorts – Rooney’s final ball was often poor and comical penalty miss typified his match in general – United’s tactical shape allows their attacking players to flourish both independently, and as a unit. With so much attacking talent, the chances are that one player will be on form, as Nani was today.
In comparison, Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation (with Torres as the spearhead) relies on the midfield being more disciplined – which they failed to do when Nani scored – and the forwards to be clinical – which Torres is currently failing to achieve. His 83rd minute open-goal miss and crouched horror afterward encapsulated all his current frustrations; while his movement was at times exceptional (particularly for the goal), the Spaniard snatched at chances – with Raul Mereiles and Juan Mata playing behind him the goals will surely come, but Chelsea today lacked the definitive confidence of the injured Didier Drogba.
Andre Villas-Boas should not be too disheartened by this defeat. His side showed poise and purpose, and were extremely dangerous. However, Ferguson’s side once again showed that with an attacking set-up and young, inventive movement in the final third, even a below-par performance by their usual high standards can be, and was today, enough to hold off the chasing pack. On another day Chelsea could have taken a victory away from Manchester, but the fluency of United’s movement has yet to be stifled this season.
Manchester United (4-4-2):De Gea; Smalling (Valencia 62), Jones, Evans, Evra; Nani, Fletcher, Anderson (Carrick 62), Young; Rooney, Hernandez (Berbatov 79)
Chelsea (4-3-3):Cech; Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Meireles (Mikel 79), Lampard (Anelka 46); Sturridge (Lukaku 68), Torres, Mata