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A pulsating encounter saw United procure a rare win at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League and their width in attack played a big part in it.

 Brendon Netto
 Analysis |Premier League
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Manchester United finally broke their decade-long hoodoo at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League by claiming all three points at the venue in a pulsating 2-3 victory. The top-of-the-table encounter boasted plenty of entertainment with both sides providing abundant attacking panache in a game that was eventually marred by a couple controversial decisions from the officials.

Sir Alex Ferguson made the bold decision to revert to a more fluid formation in attack by deploying wingers once again and the tactical change bared dividends early in the game. United defended narrowly to nullify the attacking trio of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard who seek to create a lot of chances in central areas but don’t offer natural width. The visiting team took advantage of Mata and Hazard’s reluctance to track back by attacking the full-backs particularly down Chelsea’s left-hand side.

For the first goal, Ashley Cole was caught way up the pitch when United won possession and Wayne Rooney profited from the space he was allowed in his attacking midfield role when he drifted out to the right to send in a cross that led to the opening goal. Robin Van Persie met the England international’s delivery but the combination between the two wasn’t nearly as good as that of the one between the upright and David Luiz. Van Persie’s shot rebounded off the post only to ricochet off the Brazilian before trickling over the goal-line.

In the build-up to the goal, it’s evident that Branislav Ivanovic, like his fellow full-back, was in a far more advanced position than he should have been in when United got hold of the ball. The right-back then struggled to track Van Persie who got forward and eventually met the cross.

Just eight minutes later, Ashley Cole was left isolated against Antonio Valencia and Rafael as the Ecuadorian drilled a ball in for Van Persie to dispatch expertly although the marking from Chelsea's defenders was virtually non-existent. His finish presented United with a two-goal cushion within the first quarter of an hour and Sir Alex’s troops looked comfortable at that juncture. The Scot opted to leave Paul Scholes on the bench and played Tom Cleverley instead who didn’t have the best game but brought some energy into United’s midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Rooney, who was enjoying the freedom he was afforded as Ramirez and Mikel failed to close him down.

The midfield three for the Red Devils did well to combat Chelsea’s potent attacking threat. United were the better side in the opening half an hour and capping that period with two goals would prove to be decisive. So often teams enjoy great spells during games but fail to profit from it. Instead, there was a level of co-ordination to go with a clinical nature to United’s attack and that deservedly earned them two crucial goals.

STAT – Prior to this fixture, Manchester United had been two or more goals up in 346 Premier League games and had never lost, winning 336 of them and drawing 10.

Chelsea initially found it hard to break down what looked like a 4-5-1 formation from United which morphed into a 4-2-3-1 in attack as the proceedings in the middle of the park were fairly evenly contested. However, United’s comfort did not last the entire half as the hosts abandoned their hospitable nature to exert increasing pressure on their opponents. David de Gea was on hand to display his excellent shot-stopping abilities on more than one occasion but the defence looked particularly susceptible from crosses.

Rooney brought down Hazard on the edge of the box and Mata stepped up to curl a sublime free-kick just inside the far post to pull one back for the Blues as the game approached the interval. After the break, Mata was in the thick of things once again as United started to sit deeper as a result of Chelsea’s unrelenting pressure. The Spaniard was heavily involved in the move that culminated with Oscar crossing for Ramires who headed down and past the keeper. United’s vulnerability from crosses finally cost them and the equaliser set the game up for a thrilling finish.

However, with the game evenly-poised after 63 minutes Branislav Ivanovic was the last man when he clipped Ashley Young, who was put through by Van Persie and denied the winger a clear goal-scoring opportunity. The Serbian was duly shown a red card and Chelsea couldn’t have too many complaints about the decision.

The visitors clearly had the upper-hand and the numerical advantage but things were about to get even better for them. Fernando Torres slipped the ball past Jonny Evans who seemed to make contact with the Spaniard but it was the striker who was shown his second yellow for simulation. Chelsea were to suffer another dubious decision after Van Persie’s effort was cleared off the line only for Rafael to drill the ball across from the rebound for substitute Javier Hernandez to tap in. The Mexican appeared to be coming back from an offside position but the goal stood and United took the lead.

The officials have been in particularly bad form of late in the Premier League. United were on the receiving end of a couple of offside decisions last week against Stoke City. Over the weekend, Mikel Arteta’s winner for Arsenal appeared to be offside while Luis Suarez’s effort in the Merseyside Derby was wrongly ruled out for offside as well. The refereeing was poor throughout the game as Valencia was harshly booked for diving as well and Torres was shown a yellow for a high-boot against Cleverley when it could well have been red.

Valencia spurned an opportunity to extend United’s lead towards the end but the visitors seemed keen to see out the game and so they did.  At the end of the day, it was an exhilarating encounter with United’s width in attack exploiting Chelsea’s full-backs while the hosts did remarkably well to get back into the game and look to go forward even after losing two men. The two sides meet yet again in the Capital One Cup at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening once again and that encounter now seems all the more enticing.


Manchester United verdict:

Diamonds are not forever. The diamond midfield can serve United well on occasion but width and fluidity in attack will always be their forte. Rooney was sensational in an attacking midfield role in the first half. The defence kept things tight for the first half an hour but then the usual frailties at the back that have been evident throughout this season were on display again. Regardless of the couple of fortuitous decisions that went their way, United played well, got the win and closed the gap between themselves and Chelsea to just one point. Despite their vulnerable defence, United have managed to stay within touching distance of Chelsea in the league.

Best Player – Robin Van Persie:

The Dutchman did an exceptional job leading the line once again and his movement was terrific. He turned both David Luiz and Gary Cahill on two separate occasions which showed his class against the two centre backs. His goal and his involvement in United's first, cements his status as United’s chief attacking threat and he remains on top of the goal-scoring charts alongside Demba Ba.

Chelsea verdict:

The Blues will feel hard done by after this defeat. They have themselves to blame for going two goals down but they must be credited for the manner in which they responded to get back on level terms. They can have no complaints about the first red card but were unfortunate to be on the wrong end of the next two significant decisions. Nevertheless, they did themselves proud and enhanced their credentials as genuine contenders for the league title.

Best Player – Juan Mata:

After a slow start to the game, Mata became virtually unplayable. His free-kick was top-drawer and he was involved in everything that Chelsea created. He has been their star man this season and his form will be vital to their title aspirations.

Who do you think will win the Capital One fixture in midweek? Leave your comments below...

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