After a comfortable 2-0 win over Stoke in midweek, Manchester United travelled to Stamford Bridge, knowing neighbours City had stretched the gap at the top of the table to 3 points, meaning a draw at least was of utmost importance. In the back of their minds would also be the lack of success at the Bridge in the last 10 years, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s men not tasting success since the 2001/2002 season. Couple that with some questionable decisions and it would have been easy to head into the game with trepidation. And after 50 minutes the game seemed to be reverting to type, as from Juan Mata, David Luiz and an own goal from Jonny Evans gave Chelsea a 3-0 lead.
However, in true Man United fashion, with a never say die attitude, the Reds battled back to earn a share of the spoils, sending a clear message to City ahead of the title run in. Evra was felled by a clumsy Sturridge in the box allowing Rooney to ruthlessly dispatch, before Welbeck was tripped by Ivanovic, with the same outcome; Rooney coolly sending Cech the wrong way. At 3-2 United kept pressing, and a Torres chance aside, an equaliser seemed inevitable. And so it proved as Rooney’s shot was parried to Giggs who clipped over a delightful ball which super sub Hernandez buried from 6 yards. There was still another twist to come as a Mata free kick was destined for the top corner only for De Gea to magnificently tip it over the bar. Yes it was two points lost on City, but at 3-0, to salvage a draw feels more like a victory.
1. You still can’t write United off. Ever.
Thrilling comebacks and late goals have been a hallmark of United during the Premier League era. Who can forget the 5-3 at Spurs, the 3-2 against Villa in the FA Cup, and of course the Champions League final in 1999. However, when David Luiz’s flicked header flew into the top corner off Rio Ferdinand, even the most ardent United fan would have believed the game to be beyond the Red Devils.
Just thirty five minutes later though and Sir Alex’s men were pushing for a winner, after a Rooney brace, and a clinical header from Hernandez had drawn the Reds level. This United team may not be the best in recent years in terms of quality, but the level of spirit, determination and winning mentality is second to none. As Rooney said after the game, that point may well prove the difference at the end of the season. Would City have drawn that game after going 3-0 down?
2. Scholes’ form can be key in the title race
After Chelsea’s third goal, United seemed to be at sixes and sevens, lacking composure in light of the shock of conceding two quick goals that seemed to end the tie. Rooney pulled one back and Ferguson brought on Scholes for Rafael, pushing Valencia to right back. Once Scholes got a grip of the game, United never looked back, and the maestro controlled proceedings, spraying paces left and right, dictating the flow of the game. If he stays fit and is deployed in the right position at the right time, he could well be key in United claiming an historic 20th title.
He has such an air of composure that others lack, and he is always available, breeding confidence into other players. When he is on the pitch and on form, the Reds control possession more often than not, giving more dynamic players such as Rooney the chance to move into space and create chances. Sunday’s match was just one example in a long line of a Scholes masterclass.
3. Have faith in De Gea
The young Spaniard has been hounded and criticised in the press ever since mistakes against Manchester City and West Brom at the start of the season, with everyone bar United fans seemingly wanting him to fail. Yesterday though, he showed exactly why Sir Alex splashed £18 million on him.
He could do nothing about any of the goals, but rescued United after a Mata free kick, angling into the top corner, looked set to undo all of the Reds good work, until he athletically leapt to his left to fingertip the ball round the post. Minutes later and he was at it again, this time tipping a scorching drive from Gary Cahill over the bar. Many people seem to forget he is still very young and keepers can play until they are 40, so there is plenty of time for him to improve and cement his place as United’s number one.
4. Rooney is still the main man
Yesterday, at 3-0 down, United needed someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck, to try and get back into the game. Rooney responded admirably, buzzing around the pitch, linking up play and trying to drive United forward. And when the chance came, he rose to the challenge, showing icy cool to dispatch two high pressure penalties. Given his indifferent record from the penalty spot, including misses against Manchester City and Bolton, it took guts to take responsibility.
His overall display at the Bridge was very encouraging from a United perspective, especially given the rumours that had circulated over Christmas, suggesting Wayne was unhappy at Old Trafford. He started the season on fire, until he picked up a hamstring strain and couldn’t quite get back into the groove. However if he plays like he did on Sunday for the rest of the season, United will definitely be in the running for the title.
5. Defensive mistakes need to be eradicated
If United are to win the title this season, the defence will have to be a lot tighter. The first two goals yesterday were down to poor defending in one way or another. Evra let Sturridge get past him too easily for the first and Rafael was dragged into a central area to make up the numbers as Jonny Evans found himself marking two Chelsea attackers, which allowed Mata for too much room at the back post, after the cross hadn’t been pressured.
Other recent examples include the three shipped against both Newcastle and Blackburn, as well as allowing a ten man Manchester City to get back into the game from 3-0 down. Now you can’t legislate for your best defender suffering a season long injury, and others picking up niggling injuries every other week, but the defence should still be tight. It is an area the Reds will have to address if they want to go on and claim a 20th title, because you can’t go on conceding poor goals from a defensive point of view if you want to be successful.