As Old Trafford shook on Sunday, so should have the heads of all of those who thought that it’d be the day when Manchester United’s luck finally ran out.
Dominant is an adjective that hasn’t and won’t be used in describing this Manchester United team, but perhaps they were saving it for when it really mattered. It was an occasion that didn’t call for dominance, because a win any way it was achieved would’ve accomplished the same numerical feat.
But in one fell swoop, a 90-minute display of dominance and unwavering calm, United not just knocked Chelsea off of their perch as Premier League champions and Liverpool off of their perch as English football’s most-decorated champions, they sent them hurtling.
Such was the way that United resoundingly answered the bell on Sunday, showing that there would be no repeat of last season, answering any doubts that anyone may have had about United’s worthiness as championship winners this season. The scoreline may read Manchester United 2, Chelsea 1, but there are times when scorelines don’t tell the story, and it doesn’t come remotely close to here.
True enough, United still need to achieve a positive result either Saturday at Blackburn or the following Sunday at home against Blackpool in order to secure the title, but it’s telling when so many, including your closest challengers and defeated opposition, are already proclaiming the title race well and truly over.
And from all that anyone saw on Sunday, or from United throughout this season, whether it’s from the perspective of a United fan like me and those who frequent Red Rants, a pundit, or a rival fan, there’s reason to feel so.
There’s been a lot said about what this Manchester United team isn’t, but what they are is confident, determined, focused, and resilient. That winning mentality has been the driving force behind our success this season, and that mentality is why we’ll make sure that we take that last required step and make sure we take care of our destiny instead of leaving it in the hands of someone else.
This is a season in which a lot hasn’t gone according to plan or prediction, but it’s no surprise that, in the end, Sunday’s showdown at Old Trafford was ‘the’ match of the season, the one that could all but decide the Premier League title, even though the road to it being so was filled with more twists and turns than anyone might have expected.
What was a surprise, however, was that it seems only one team decided to show up. Chelsea may have come out with their heads up, with the tag of ‘reigning champions’, and the superior ‘form’, but United came out with plenty of fire and plenty to prove, not to mention the balance of 75,000+ in attendance in their favor.
There has been some criticism at how United have employed a cautious approach at times this season, but against the opponent you’d expect such an approach, United have done the opposite, and it’s paid dividends each time.
By the time you’ve faced any opponent for the fourth time in the span of a couple of months and for the fifth time overall in the season, there should be no surprises, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Chelsea that United would come out looking to score a first-half goal against them for the fifth time in as many meetings.
But I didn’t expect that goal to come as quickly as it did, so I’m sure they didn’t either. In the 2-1 win last month that secured United’s place in the Champions League semifinals, Javier Hernandez dented the scoresheet in the 43rd minute. Come the 43rd second Sunday, the Mexican maestro was in the embrace of Wayne Rooney, celebrating his 20th goal of the season.
The majority of those 20 goals have been important ones, and without them, United wouldn’t have entered Sunday in the driver’s seat in the title race, and the match might not have had the same significance. But while he’s quickly developed a reputation for stunning opponents in the late stages, his cool first-minute finish dealt Chelsea an insta-stunner from which they wouldn’t recover.
Of course, with the previous meetings in mind, and with the talent within their ranks, it was imperative to not let up, to turn that knockdown into a knockout as soon as possible. Not being able to do so when the opportunity was there proved to be costly in Chelsea’s 2-1 win in March, the win that started the revival that saw them close to within three points of United coming into Sunday. All of those things must have been taken into account, because it took only 20-odd minutes for the second to come via the head of Nemanja Vidic, who set a personal best with his fifth Premier League goal of the season.
With nearly 70 minutes still to play, Vidic’s header wasn’t exactly game, set, and match, but it made it far easier to breathe than it has been in many of United’s games this season. Cautiously, of course, because with that much time remaining, there was plenty of time for Chelsea to mount a comeback that wouldn’t have been beyond them, considering the comeback they’d made to make the title race more interesting than it perhaps should be.
Their opportunities came, and eventually one was converted, with Frank Lampard poking one home to give Chelsea hope with 20-plus minutes plus injury time still on the clock. But before and after that strike, if ever there was going to be a flood of goals on either end, it’d have been from United, who may have been outshot on the afternoon but had more clear scoring chances. That’s not including a couple of viable penalty claims, but hey, would it be Manchester United-Chelsea without at least a little controversy?
Such controversies have had a bearing on the result in several of the more recent meetings between United and Chelsea, and perhaps some might have been saying, ‘oh, it’s going to be another one of those days’, but in the end, those no-calls, along with some fine stops by Petr Cech (and one from Alex on a close-range Rooney effort) only prevented the result being a reflection of the performance.
There’s a lot that has been said and still could be said about United’s performance, so I don’t need to ramble on and on about it.
But for those who thought that such performances were beyond this United team, there shouldn’t be anymore questions. The destruction of Schalke might have made for a more impressive scoreline, but the will-breaking dismantling of Chelsea is a performance that could be remembered even after United have taken their collection of domestic league titles well into the 20s.
Of course, the record-breaking 19th has to be secured first, so some plaudits can be saved until after the job is officially done. Once that is wrapped up, there’s a chance to make the season even more memorable, and if United bring the same fire and focus to Wembley in two and a half weeks that they brought on Sunday, we’ll have every chance to take down Barcelona, invincible as many seem to make them out to be.
This season has been one in which we’ve made a habit of demolishing some of our demons and overcoming obstacle after obstacle, and on Sunday, we did it again, when our backs were more against the wall than they were at Aston Villa, Blackpool, and West Ham combined.
It’s what champions do, and come Saturday afternoon, United should be champions for a record 19th time, and after Sunday’s performance, there should be no lingering doubts about its deservedness.
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