In a dazzling and shocking affair, the Blues were often dominant yet conceded three in the first half, as we saw the good and the bad of their £50 million striker
Sir Alex Ferguson followed through on his vow to restore David de Gea between the sticks having given Anders Lindegaard a run-out against Benfica in midweek. Darren Fletcher also started despite only having played 60 minutes since returning from a long lay-off with a mystery virus. Chelsea, meanwhile, stuck with the misfiring Torres up front.
After just two minutes, Ashley Cole volleyed over the area to the back post, finding Ramires free to shoot, but the under-pressure de Gea produced a good save with his outstretched leg.
The home side, though, took their first opportunity – after Jose Bosingwa brought down Ashley Young on the United left, the winger swung the free-kick into the box, and the anonymous Chelsea defence allowed Smalling acres of space in which to head home, although TV replays suggested he was slightly offside.
The Blues’ heads did not go down, though, and they pushed forward in search of a quick response. Under pressure from Bosingwa, Anderson lamely gave the ball straight to the onrushing Torres, who got around the last defender before slicing wide, de Gea having closed the angle well.
There were half-hearted shouts for a United penalty when, in trying to clear from the box, Frank Lampard nodded the ball against his own shoulder on its way into the ground, but Phil Dowd ignored it.
Chelsea were dominating the attacking play in search of an equaliser, but a relatively rare United foray forward was nearly decisive when Nani clipped a cross into the centre of the box towards Rooney, but Meireles made a crucial interception.
The Blues should have equalised immediately after, as, on the break, Juan Mata fed Torres through the inside-left channel, who pulled it across the box into the path of Ramires, but the midfielder made a mess of a shot he should have buried and de Gea snatched it.
With Chelsea still on the attack, Torres attempted an overhead kick on the edge of the area from Daniel Sturridge’s cross, but it sailed harmlessly wide of the post. Sturridge himself then had an opportunity having brilliantly controlled an awkward headed flick in the box, but his shot was picked up by de Gea.
And sure enough, Chelsea were made to pay for their variety of squandered chances, when, out of nowhere, Jonny Evans brought Nani into play with a long cross-field pass. The winger moved slowly and deliberately inside a compliant Mata before unleashing an unstoppable shot into the top corner from 25 yards to throw Andre Villas-Boas’ plans into further chaos – and again, technology intimated that Nani was offside when he received the ball.
A few minutes later, just as Chelsea considered regrouping at half-time, Phil Jones drove relentlessly forward into the penalty area and, as he fell to the floor, the ball popped up out of the mess of players into the path of Rooney, who could not have missed, and so Chelsea, for long periods the superior side, perplexingly reached the break 3-0 down.
Villas-Boas reacted by bringing on Nicolas Anelka for Lampard, and it brought immediate results as the Frenchman played Torres through precisely from the left, and the Spaniard finally scored his second Chelsea goal, a beautiful chip over the helpless de Gea.
Suddenly, with Chelsea pouring forward, United broke and Nani rattled the crossbar with a monstrous shot, but any disappointment was erased when he was awarded a penalty, Bosingwa judged to have brought him down, although it appeared that he got as much of the ball as the player. But, to shock, Rooney’s comical slip from the spot saw him launch the ball skywards, with the watching John Terry reminded of one night in Moscow.
The Blues kept pushing but stuttered a little and the next real chance fell again to the hosts, as Jones rose to meet Young’s cross from the short corner, but the ex-Blackburn man’s header was weak and wide. A corner at the other end then saw substitute Romelu Lukaku look for a second as if he had broken free from Patrice Evra to poke home, but the left-back somehow got back in time to block him.
The visitors knocked on the door again as a rejuvenated-looking Torres spectacularly evaded two defenders and let off a vicious shot, but de Gea was equal to it, with the striker then blasting the rebound over the bar.
With Chelsea coming ever closer, they might have been killed off once again when, as Terry missed his interception on Evra’s low cross, Rooney looked certain to score from close range, only to see his effort bobble off the post in a huge let-off for the Blues. As Javier Hernandez pounced on the rebound, firing wide, he was scythed down by Ashley Cole. No penalty was given as the shot had already been dispatched out of play but the left-back was lucky only to garner a yellow card.
And suddenly the moment came. Ramires removed the entire United back line from the equation with a brilliant through-ball for Torres, who rounded de Gea and had to score, yet somehow contrived to shoot unacceptably wide in the face of an impossibly easy open goal.
As the match moved into stoppage time, Dimitar Berbatov seemed certain to bury a fourth, fed by Rooney on the break, but a heroic last-ditch run from Cole was enough to reach the ball in time. But Chelsea could not summon enough to find a comeback before the game's end.
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