Chelsea's season may have just been turned around in a hurry, and in the process they've blown the title race wide open. Although Manchester United hadn't won at Stamford Bridge since 2002, things weren't looking good after a sloppy first half in which Wayne Rooney opened the scoring with a well-hit long range drive after a long spell of Manchester United pressure. When Branislav Ivanovic had the goal at his mercy less than a yard out and somehow failed to score, it did rather seem like the team was cursed to never score again. A second half revival with goals from David Luiz and Frank Lampard, and a late sending off for United captain Nemanja Vidic, rather put thoughts of curses to bed. Astonishingly, Chelsea emerged from the crucible with a 2-1 and three vital points as they chase down a top four spot that has seemed in some doubt over recent months.
The team selection from both managers was far more traditional than we've come to expect from top sides in the Premier League. 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-1-1 was the order of the day, with Chelsea virtually unchanged from the side that defeated FC Copenhagen in Denmark last week and United fielding the same team that beat Wigan 4-0 at the DW Stadium in the weekend's match, breaking a streak of 164 matches where changes had been made to Sir Alex Ferguson's lineup. The formations led to an incredibly open game with back and forth attacks the order of the day, although there were spells in which United dominated (mid first half) and periods in which the home team were the major force. All in all, it made for a fascinating clash that even neutrals found compelling.
It was also a very strange one. Chelsea were on the attack almost immediately, attempting to use Florent Malouda and Ashley Cole on the left to overwhelm John O'Shea at right back for United. A corner was quickly earned, swung in by Malouda, and knocked out of the box to Fernando Torres, whose screaming volley in off the crossbar rather dispelled any myths that his famous finishing ability had deserted him. Unfortunately for Torres, Martin Atkinson had already blown for a foul in the penalty box, meaning that Torres will have to wait a while longer to break his Chelsea duck. The foul appeared to be some sort of push by Luiz, but it was an awfully niggly offence, and the first of a series of pretty poor calls by the referee.
Shortly afterwards, Chelsea had their first clear sight of Edwin van der Sar's goal. Ramires sprung away on the right and was hauled down by a nasty challenge from Nicolas Anelka to make his way to the byline. Torres was in the box and challenging United's centre back pairing, but instead Anelka opted to find Malouda in the centre of the box, whose late run had left him totally free of the defence. With yards of space and only van der Sar to beat, however, he inexplicably fired a weak shot right at the goalkeeper rather than stroking home. Chelsea should have had the lead just minutes into the match - and Malouda would deeply regret his miss., but not before he had released
Manchester United had been on the back foot for the game until that point but began making some noise, with Paul Scholes and starting to dominate the midfield where Michael Essien was frequently having to make up for poor movement by Frank Lampard. He couldn't do it by himself, and Ramires was failing to pin Patrice Evra back, leaving Branislav Ivanovic frequently alone against both Nani and the left-back. Although David Luiz was dealing with Wayne Rooney pretty comfortably, Chelsea started losing the ball in their own half, with some sloppy play by Ashley Cole and Lampard allowing United to extend their attacks.
Thirty minutes into the match and United had been knocking on the door for ten. The goal was coming, and surprise, Wayne 'Elbow? What Elbow?' Rooney was the scorer. For once, the England found himself marked by Ivanovic rather than by David Luiz, which proved disastrous for Chelsea. The Serbian allowed his man to turn and dart into space, and Lampard was incredibly slow to cover. By the time the tackle was coming in a 22 yard shot had been dispatched at speed and with deadly accuracy. Petr Cech's failure to impede the effort as it buzzed into his right corner was no discredit at all to the goalkeeper - a save there would have been nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps United didn't deserve to be winning after Chelsea's excellent chance in the early stages of the game, but their attacking verve certainly deserved a goal.
After that spell of dominance, Chelsea hauled themselves back into the game, although the passing was sloppy and the attacking play laboured. Anelka and Torres, who had been superb in the very early going, drifted out of the game as Chelsea's play concentrated around the area rather than inside it. United we happy to hit the Blues on the counter and they looked very dangerous on the transition - there could have been more goals if some dangerous crosses from the right had been met by a red (or even blue) shirt.
However, there was one passage of play where Chelsea could - perhaps should have gone level. In the 40th minute, Evra and Torres collided, with Atkinson bizarrely deciding that it would be a free kick for Chelsea a little outside the area in the right channel. Frank Lampard, hitherto anonymous, stepped over the ball, and absolutely hammered a free kick into the six-yard box. Edwin van der Sar was faced with both ball and Michael Essien coming at him fast, and could only parry the shot into the path of Ivanovic, less than two yards from goal. The Serbian (mis)controlled on his midriff and then, with the goalkeeper still lying prone, poked tentatively in the general direction of the net - but his effort was rather thwarted by a gloved hand flinging itself instinctively towards the goal. Somehow, van der Sar had blocked the effort, deflecting it off of Nemanja Vidic and to safety. Further shots from Malouda and Lampard posed not nearly so much threat, were easily dealt with before Atkinson's whistle blew.
Sir Alex Ferguson would have been far the happier manager at half time. His side were ahead and looking capable of more, while Chelsea were playing some rather poor football, conceding possession rashly and failing to generate much penetration from open play. Lampard, Cole, and Malouda were all playing particularly badly, with Malouda especially guilty of wasteful passes and touches. With Manchester United more than happy to play on the counterattack, the Blues needed an early goal in the second half to get back into the game, or eventually their opposition would get the second, and the game would be over.
They got it thanks to a wonderful goal from an unlikely source. With £50M striker Torres still chasing after his first Chelsea goal, rather less expensive defender David Luiz opened his account with a gorgeous volley. The defence was still up following a corner when Michael Essien delivered a long ball into the box, and Ivanovic was able to head it on to David Luiz, who was lurking unmarked just yards from the goal. Evra noticed the danger, and Luiz's pause let him almost catch up to the Brazilian centre half. However, said pause allowed the defender to shape for a volley and he sent the ball absolutely screaming past Edwin van der Sar, possibly grazing the near post in the process. It was a striker's finish from a top class defender.
Luiz was in the books for another reason second later thanks to going through the back of Wayne Rooney in rather nasty fashion, Atkinson showing yellow for a move that further endeared the £23M man to the Stamford Bridge faithful and probably dropped him several notches in everyone else's eyes, and in all honesty Luiz was extremely lucky to avoid the referee's attention for two off-ball incidents in which he took out Javier Hernandez and then Wayne Rooney again. Both were easily worthy of bookings, and much of the post-match talk has centred on favouritism from the referee here - but I don't think Atkinson actually saw either challenge, or Luiz definitely would have been gone. Even Carlo Ancelotti admitted after the match that he was lucky not to have seen red.
While Sideshow Bob's footballing brother was introducing himself to United's strikers, another Chelsea icon was making an introduction. Didier Drogba took the pitch for Nicolas Anelka in the 61st minute and instantly added some physicality to Chelsea's front line, allowing aimless punts upfield which would previously have been shepherded away by Vidic and company to be turned into Chelsea possession. Yuri Zhirkov was also introduced for the fairly hapless Malouda, and he too had an instant impact, with hard work in defence combining with darting runs down the flank. Meanwhile Rooney had had a couple of good chances to add to his tally, but his first attempt (which masqueraded as a cross) went well wide from an acute angle and the second was hit straight at Cech.
United had made changes as well, bringing off the ineffectual Javier Hernandez for leading scorer Dimitar Berbatov as well as replacing Paul Scholes with Ryan Giggs, who was making his 607th league appearance for the team, matching Bobby Charlton's all-time record. The ovation from the Chelsea fans wasn't quite as rousing as I'd have liked to hear for a player of Giggs' stature making yet another mark on history, but the game was still tense and tied, so all, I think, is forgiven. Despite the pedigree of Sir Alex's substitutes, it was still Chelsea's who made more of an impact.
Drogba's contribution was evident when he turned a long ball into a legitimate goalscoring chance by simply getting in everyone's way. The Ivorian, with his back facing away from goal, controlled on his chest, then knee, holding off the defenders around him with sheer strength before eventually being bundled to the ground. The resulting free kick was almost 35 yards out but Drogba came up with a cannon of a shot, a dipping and swerving drive that, unfortunately for the home fans, drifted a few yards wide of Edwin van der Dar's goal.
Rather more happily, his other skills came to the fore when he weaved his way into Manchester United's area and gave the ball to Frank Lampard. Chris Smalling mopped up, but allowed himself to be caught in possession by Zhirkov, and couldn't react in time as the Russian nutmegged him and tried to get around him only to trip over an outstretched boot. Atkinson pointed straight to the spot, but the penalty was rather dubious. It's not clear how Smalling could have not tripped Zhirkov in that situation, and my belief is that defenders are entitled to stand their ground. Nevertheless, a penalty was awarded.
Up stepped Frank Lampard, whose shot would still be rising right now had the roof of the net not interrupted its stately progress. Van der Sar had no chance whatsoever of saving the spot kick - it was right down the middle and just under the crossbar, and the goalkeeper had dived to his right in anticipation of Lampard's usual penalty habits. The England midfielder wheeled off to celebrate like he'd won the team a trophy - and why not? With ten minutes to go Chelsea had come from behind and were leading their arch-rivals 2-1. They just needed to hold out a little longer.
They weren't particularly interested in simply holding out, as it transpires. With the red shirts looking shocked at throwing away their lead, Chelsea stormed forwards, winning a series of corners and very nearly converting one into a goal after Zhirkov, who had been excellent, volleyed against the post from range after a half-clearance by United. If Nemanja Vidic hadn't gotten in the way of the shot, the Russian would have been celebrating his first league goal for Chelsea and the Blues would have been looking at an unassailable lead.
The visitors did manage to mount a few attacks but whenever they tried to get the ball into dangerous areas passes were overhit, and their crosses were typically going straight to Cech, who showed very good hands and superb command of the penalty area. Didier Drogba was instrumental in keeping the ball away from United, often making beelines straight for the corner and holding off two or three players as they tried to separate player from ball. He was supported in this endeavour primarily by Ramires, who was often able to pick the ball up even after it had been wrested away from the striker and then make a surging run into the box.
This was the situation when Vidic wrestled him to the ground in the early stages on injury time. The Serbian was already on a booking for a first half tactical foul on Michael Essien and was just minutes removed from a rather rash challenge on Drogba when he hauled Ramires down inches outside the penalty box. Out came the second yellow and a red card, and the United captain trudged off for a (not that early) bath. After the red card, Chelsea were in total control, and had another pair of opportunities to score, although Torres opted to pass rather than shoot each time.
Although the third goal would have been nice for supporter's stress levels, it turned out to be unnecessary. Chelsea were camped out in the United half for most of the rest of the match, and when the full time whistle rang out across Stamford Bridge there was no real feeling of relief, as though the team had hung on by the skin of their teeth. No, Chelsea's second half display was assured rather than panicked, and when they got their noses in front they still played with the dogged determination that they've lacked over the past few months. Did the prospect of losing to Manchester United at home for the first time since 2002 rouse the team from their slumber? Is this the turning point in a bizarre season? Time will tell. But for now, it's Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United. The Blues are back into the Champions League spots and United are now just four points clear at the top of the table - and Arsenal have a game in hand.
Things are getting very, very interesting.