Manchester United defeated Chelsea to all but win the league title – Chicharito scored early and Nemanja Vidic headed a second before a number of dubious decisions from Howard Webb, a goal from Frank Lampard and profligacy from the Reds set up a tense finale.
Sir Alex sprung a surprise when Patrice Evra wasn’t named in the 18 – but as ever, any doubts over the defence are always better answered up the other end of the pitch. It was arguably the biggest match of a generation for United, on the cusp of 19 league titles and knowing that beating the current Champions would give the engravers cause to prepare – but the hosts showed no nerves, scoring inside the first minute.
In fact, barely 30 seconds had hit the clock by the time Chicharito smashed the ball into the net – Giggs threaded a great pass to Park, whose through ball to the Mexican was equally majestic – Chicharito got past David Luiz and fired into the near post. Old Trafford was rocking and Wayne Rooney hit a couple of stunning long range efforts after great moves, one saved and one wide.
Chelsea barely threatened, and United stormed into a 2-0 lead midway through the first half. Perhaps having picked up on the failure of corners going in first time, the Reds seemed to be going for the second phase of play from the set pieces – and it worked a treat as Giggs picked up a return, outfoxed Kalou, and crossed for Vidic to thunder home a header at the far post.
The Blues then had their own spell of overdue pressure, with Kalou and Drogba forcing van der Sar to make great saves, before the game got a little nasty. Branislav Ivanovic should have been off after committing not one, not two, but three bookable offences yet stayed on, while Michael Essien and Wayne Rooney also found themselves in the book.
Chelsea couldn’t be much worse than they were and made two changes, with Alex and Ramires coming on. But it made no obvious immediate impact and United should have had two penalties through two Antonio Valencia led attacks. Valencia was superb throughout and his cross was clearly handled by Lampard just after the break – and the winger was felled by John Terry in the box in the 64th minute. United may well have had cause to believe things were going against them when Ivanovic – who should have been off – headed a Ramires cross to Lampard – who should have conceded a penalty – and the England midfielder converted inside in the 6 yard box.
The hosts conspired to make it a nervy last 20 minutes but more through their own wastefulness – Rooney had three chances inside of a minute with 10 left, but seemed too anxious to convert any. Likewise, his strike partner seemed to be a little over excited with a chance provided by Valencia after a Carrick free kick caught Chelsea out. Fernando Torres might have done better with an effort he dragged wide of the near post before Chicharito lashed at another chance in the last minute of normal time – but United were able to get over the finish line, having put everything into the match, to get the three points about install themselves as Champions elect. It was a deserved win at just the right time.
Mathematically United still need a point – though it seems a mere formality that in a fortnight’s time, the club will be celebrating an historical afternoon on parade at Old Trafford.
Man of the Match : Ryan Giggs
Antonio Valencia was brilliant – Wayne Rooney made the team tick – but the man of the match was surely Ryan Giggs. With an assist, and an assist to an assist, Giggs was sensational as United dominated Chelsea in the first half and was simply a class above when the team needed experience in the second half. It was fitting that Giggs should be the best player, but it’s not through sentiment that this is said. He was simply the best player on the pitch on the day – and on a day when United all but sealed the league, nothing else could have been more befitting.
Ratings : van der Sar 8, Fabio 7 (Smalling), Ferdinand 7, Vidic 8, O’Shea 7 (Evans 8), Valencia 9, Carrick 8, *Giggs 9, Park 8, Rooney 8, Chicharito 8