Since a 3-0 win at Chelsea in April 2002, Manchester United had made 10 trips to Stamford Bridge prior to last night’s Champions League encounter. In those ten trips, there’s been controversy, missed opportunities, close losses, late losses, and overall, a lot of disappointment, with an unsightly record of seven defeats and three draws.
It’s safe to say United couldn’t have picked a better time to break that drought than last night, and it more than makes up for the previous 10 winless trips, as it puts us firmly in the driver’s seat for another trip to the Champions League semis.
Chelsea may feel hard done by that a penalty wasn’t given late on when there was contact between Patrice Evra and Ramires, but oh well. Just as a Didier Drogba offside goal wasn’t the reason why United didn’t win the Premier League title last season, that one sequence isn’t ultimately what made the difference last night.
We survived early pressure from Chelsea, and just as we did last month at Stamford Bridge, we started showing our own intent, as I hoped we would instead of sitting back, taking few risks, and allowing them to dictate the game from the outset.
And just as it did last month, it paid off with an early and vital goal. It’s not about how many chances you create, but what you do with the ones that you do, and if a move could be played to absolute perfection, this was it.
Instead of trying to unnecessarily take on defenders or throw and end a potentially promising sequence early, both Rafael and Valencia did wisely and got rid of the ball, with the latter finding Michael Carrick all by his lonesome in the center.
True enough, Carrick hasn’t been the same threat on the attacking front this season as he has been in his previous seasons at United, as he has all of one assist to his name to this point. But if those past seasons have shown us anything, it’s that he can make the amazing happen if he’s given the space to. He was given far too much space, and he made the most of it, delivering as good a diagonal pass as you’ll see, hitting Ryan Giggs perfectly in stride near the byline, like Joe Montana to Jerry Rice. And from there, Giggsy took full advantage of the extra attention he drew in from Chelsea’s defense, finding an unmarked Wayne Rooney, who slotted home his seventh goal in eight games to give United a priceless advantage.
That, of course, put Chelsea in the position of needing to score, and we did indeed allow to come forward as they pleased. Given how things transpired last month, when we were unable to protect the early lead, and how we’ve played with leads away from home many times this season, it would have been easy to feel like that would surely end in disaster.
But even though they bent and bent and bent, they didn’t break as they did last time, when Chelsea broke through less than ten minutes into the second half and had plenty of time to work for the winner they ended up getting, fairly or unfairly as it may have been. Not only did it help in the physical sense to have Rio Ferdinand back, getting stuck in from the start, and being able to go the full 90 minutes, but you’d have to feel that it also gave the side a big mental lift as well.
It also didn’t hurt that time after time, Chelsea, and in particular, the still-misfiring Fernando Torres, couldn’t apply that clinical finish that would’ve gotten them back into the game. Any other time, they would’ve buried at least a couple of those chances and perhaps buried us in the process, but besides the fact that Torres appears to be severely lacking in the confidence department at the moment, maybe it was just our night.
It would have been even better had we been able to score a second goal and win 2-0, because that would appear to be an almost unassailable advantage. But there are only so many things that one can nitpick about here, because being able to leave Stamford Bridge with an away goal, a clean sheet, and a win is head and shoulders above what anyone might have expected United to do last night.
The second leg next Tuesday will certainly be a tough one, as we’ll have to stand tall again in the face of many a Chelsea attack, but you certainly have to fancy our chances whenever we’re holding a decided advantage coming back to the European fortress that is Old Trafford.
More important than the win itself is the decided impact that it should have on the team’s confidence. We saw United at their fighting best at West Ham, calmly and coolly rallying from a 2-0 deficit, and to follow that up with their first win at Stamford Bridge in almost nine years, and to do it in such an important match, means that the team’s confidence should be sky high right now, and that’s where it needs to be heading into the final stretch of the season.
There’s still plenty to do from here, but today’s a day to celebrate…especially if you’re me, since it’s my birthday, and thanks to Wayne Rooney and an assist from Lady Luck, you better believe I’m a lot happier than I was on the last one.
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