The machine trundles on. Manchester United go into this evening’s Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea looking more likely become, if some sources are to be believed, the first ever English club to win the treble without actually playing that well. Is there, however, anything behind this throwaway comment? The recent statistics speak for themselves. They are seven points clear at the top of the Premier League and ninety minutes from the FA Cup final. They have won their last six successive matches, and their home form this season has been phenomenal – fifteen wins from sixteen matches at Old Trafford in the Premier League, and unbeaten in all competitions there this season. The have scored seventy goals in the Premier League already this season, and have conceded just nine goals at home in doing so.
The notion of “winning without playing well” is a subjective one, of course. Professional football is a results-based business, and aesthetics aren’t counted when the trophies are handed out at the end of the season. There is something fundamentally awesome – in a literal sense – about Manchester United this season. Even if we were to acknowledge that Manchester United are “winning without playing well” this season, this grinding out of results is what makes them championship material. It is, one could argue, an artform in itself and, put simply, it has been the difference between them and Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, all of whom may yet end this season without a trophy between them. Their performance at Stamford Bridge last week was a perfect case in point. Two evenly-matched teams playing an even match, yet it was Wayne Rooney that snatched the only goal. To claim accident rather than design would be to belittle the achievement of the result. They did, as they have on so many occasions this season, enough.
Those that want Manchester United to fail, then, have to look elsewhere for succour ahead of this evening’s match. The optimistic may choose to consider the occasionally random nature of the game, which we may choose to call “the eleven men versus eleven” theory. The more pragmatic, on the other hand, may seek solace in the history books. There is no other club with a record against Manchester United quite like Chelsea. If there is any English team that can go to Old Trafford and turn around a one goal deficit, it is them. They also have the (relative) advantage of Manchester United having “only” scored one away goal. Should Chelsea take the lead tonight, it will be all square with the possibility that a grain of doubt – just a grain, and just a possibility of one – will be planted in the minds of the Manchester United players. Chelsea’s chance of winning this tie may have come and gone with the first leg at Stamford Bridge, but tonight’s match is surely not a foregone conclusion just yet.
For twenty minutes or so, though, Chelsea are matching Manchester United. They are playing good attacking football and are putting the home defence under considerable pressure. Rio Ferdinand is limping and, although Chelsea seem largely bereft of ideas once they get within sight of the Manchester United penalty area, they still manage to create a couple of half-chances, including one that Frank Lampard should probably score from ten yards out – his shot, however, lacks power and Van Der Saar saves comfortably. As the half wears on, though, Manchester United start to awaken, and Chelsea start to look a little panicky when the ball gets near their penalty area. after twenty-five minutes, Wayne Rooney crosses from the right and Hernandez stoops to head the ball in, only for the linesman’s flag to rule the goal out. Was it offside? Well, sometimes they are given and sometimes not. The message, however, is clear. Manchester United are starting to come to life.
Chelsea still, however, continue to snatch half-chances. A long ball towards the penalty area sees Van Der Saar rush from his goal and make a hash of his clearance before recovering to scramble the ball away. Most of the football, however, is now being played at the other end of the pitch and, two minutes from half-time, Manchester United take the lead. Ryan Giggs, who still, after all these years, plays football like somebody playing a video game on the easiest setting, picks up a through-ball from John O’ Shea that almost completely turns Nicolas Anelka inside-out and crosses for Javier Hernandez to stab the ball into the roof of the net from barely a yard out. It’s not a million miles from being one of the misses of the season, but as the ball flies into the roof of the net, that familiarly inevitable feeling of a Manchester United hangs heavy in the air.
At half-time, Carlo Ancelotti reverses the decision that may just end up costing him his job at the end of the season. Didier Drogba is brought on for the hopelessly ineffectual Fernando Torres – who, one can only imagine, spent the afternoon munching on cocodomol tablets under the impression that they were tic-tacs – and the effect on Chelsea in the opening stages of the second half is striking. Drogba is a refined version of the old-fashioned centre-forward, and his introduction breathes life into a Chelsea team that had started to look more and more moribund as the half wore on. Thirteen minutes in, he flashes a shot narrowly wide, but this is an increasingly rare highlight as the match gets scrappier and scrappier, a succession of niggly fouls and chest-puffing. What looks like Chelsea’s final chance seems to disappear when Ramires clatters into Nani, a careless and ill-thought tackle, and earns himself a second yellow card for his troubles.
There is still, however, time for sixty seconds of drama. Michael Essien lifts the ball through to Didier Drogba, who fires past a sprawling Van Der Saar to bring Chelsea level. Suddenly, and largely from nowhere, Chelsea are right back in the game. The unlikely comeback is on. This Manchester United team might be shown up for what they… oh. Within a minute, Giggs has threaded another perfect, perfect, perfect pass through the eye of a needle and Park shoots across Cech to open the lead up to two goals again. And with that, the match is over. The machine has rumbled on. Chelsea worked hard, but perhaps the decision not to start Didier Drogba was the matter that came to seal their fate. Just whose decision that was may be debatable. Once again, though, Chelsea have fallen short in the competition that Roman Abramovich wants to win more than anything else, and that is all that will matter to their supporters this evening.
Meanwhile, the Manchester United machine rumbles on. Barring one of the most extraordinary results in the history of European football tomorrow evening, they will now play Schalke 04 in the semi-finals of the competition. This is, of course, an eminently winnable tie (although Schalke’s 5-2 win at the San Siro last week may have given Alex Ferguson pause for thought), and this may leave Barcelona or Real Madrid waiting for them in final. The treble remains resolutely on, but perhaps the final word this evening should be left for Ryan Giggs, whose vision and brilliance won this match for his club this evening. He, more than anyone else on the pitch, deserved this evening’s result. At thirty-seven years old, he continues to bewilder, confound and amaze, and Roberto Mancini will have been watching with some trepidation ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final.
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