Manchester United have nine fingers on their treasured 19th League Championship following a commanding 2-1 defeat of nearest rivals Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday. A win for the away team would have brought them level on points and with a superior goal difference with just two matches left. As it was, they were blown away by a first half onslaught that combined pace, power and skill to which Chelsea had no answer.
United were given the perfect start with a goal from Javier Hernández after just 36 seconds. The Mexican kept his cool to slot past Cech with his first touch of the ball. The home side got their reward for almost total dominance mid-way through the half when Nemanja Vidic powered through a static Chelsea defence to head in a Giggs cross. Although the visitors enjoyed a more even share of possession as the half wore on, they rarely troubled the home team defence, superbly marshalled by Vidic, Ferdinand and Van der Sar. Chelsea were lucky to retain a full compliment of players after Ivanovic committed a hat trick of cautionable fouls yet was allowed to remain on the pitch by referee Webb.
The second half saw further Chelsea possession and the Old Trafford faithful were brought out of their comfort zone by Lampard's strike, deflecting a deep cross past Van der Sar. An equaliser would have been a travesty based on the gulf in class between the two sides and as Chelsea went searching for it, the gaps started to appear in their much pressured back line. Chance after chance was spurned as United kept the away side in the contest through a combination of wasteful finishing and last ditch defending.
The final whistle brought joyous scenes as the players realised that their quest for the holy grail was within touching distance. High up in the director's box, Sir Bobby Charlton applauded the modern day heroes with vigour and an appreciation for the effort and desire displayed before him.
The Reds need one point from an away trip to Blackburn (next Saturday) or a home game against Blackpool to be mathematically certain of lifting their trophy once more.
Overall, it was an incredible statement of class from the team at Old Trafford yesterday. It would have been easy to sit back and absorb what Chelsea could muster in the hope that they failed to break down the well drilled back line. However, in true Manchester United style, Chelsea were rendered helpless by wave upon wave of attacks that demonstrated the flair and quality that so many thought was lacking from the class of 2010/11.
Here are a few talking points from the game on Sunday
Goal Analysis - Hernández
There is not too much to say about the opener really as it is clear why things developed as they did. Two passes (1 from Giggs, the other from Park) and a slight nick off the struggling Luiz set Hernández free. One thing that is noticeable as he approaches Cech, is how the goalkeeper makes a slight move to cover his far post which leaves an enticing gap on the near post as shown by the picture below. Perhaps Cech was anticipating where the ball was headed but it could hardly be described as an error. Bearing in mind the magnitude of the game and that it was his first touch, the way he slid the ball past Cech was wonderful and once more proved why he has emerged as the signing of the season.
|X marks the spot where Hernández sees a small gap with Cech covering the far post|
Goal Analysis - Vidic
As all United fans know, our prowess from corner kicks is regularly called into question. Although the goal came from this variation of set piece, it will go down as the second phase rather than as an original ball into the box. The interesting part about this goal is that it develops with Vidic (circled in below picture) struggling to get into his usual spot in the box. Whether he got delayed getting up there or the speed in which Giggs took the corner took him by surprise, I am not sure, but it certainly provides the key to the goal.
|Chelsea mark up their men unaware of the advancing Vidic. Terry (stooping) is oblivious to the advancing Serb|
The big Serb is then able to force his way unchallenged and unmarked toward goal as the cross from Giggs approaches. He has momentum in his favour as he guides the ball beyond Cech into the net.
|Vidic steams in to power his header past Cech with Terry (on penalty spot) and Luiz (near post) helpless|
In the first picture you can notice John Terry bending down slightly presumably wondering where his man Vidic actually is. By the time he realises, our captain has made a run behind him and left him for dead as the most advanced of the Chelsea defence (no 26 in picture above). It is a big mistake from the Chelsea skipper as he is guilty of ball watching and has completely switched off leading to the ultimate punishment.
"Defensive wingers" - Valencia and Park
Every member of the team yesterday played his part in the performance that led to the end result. Arguably the two "stand out" performers were the unsung Ji Sung Park and Antonio Valencia.
The selection of Park is often seen as a negative move in some respects as he can be employed to stifle his opposing full back and also assist his colleague on that side from a defensive point of view. This role seems to have evolved this year somewhat as he no longer stays as wide and is often seen drifting inside to help the centre of midfield with interceptions and the linking of play to the other flank. Yesterday without any doubt, was his finest and most complete display in a United shirt. Not only did he suppress the forward threat of Ivanovic, he was able to help O'Shea and later Evans with the attentions of Kalou. There are not too many players that could play this role as they have to have immense levels of energy to cover so much of the pitch and still remain effective long into the game. His value from an attacking sense was shown by his assist for the opener and a secondary one for the Vidic header as he laid the ball back into the path of Giggs. All of this goes to show just how vital a member of the squad he is for United as the boss can entrust a multitude of tasks upon his shoulders and know they will be carried out with that trademark effervescence and verve.
|You are going to need a gun to stop him Ashley!|
On the right wing, Valencia gave his best performance of the season up against allegedly the World's best left back in Ashley Cole. I certainly cannot remember a time when the Englishman has looked so shell-shocked as he was yesterday. Time and time again, Valencia not only beat his man but left him trailing in his wake as his all round package of pace and power (clearly worked on during his long rehabilitation) won the duel. The Ecuadorian is another player blessed with a tremendous work ethic like his colleague on the other side. He can be relied on fully to supplement his full back from a defensive aspect and there were numerous examples where he was able to give Fabio the support to break up an attack before heading for the attacking half. Even Valencia's crossing, which I was critical of recently, improved and he would have added an assist to his list of credits had Hernández not headed over from the edge of the six yard box late on.
For the reasons outlined above, I would be loath to describe Park and Valencia as "defensive wingers" any longer. They clearly offer a great deal from a defensive point of view but the pace and energy means they can quickly switch to going on the offensive. I would say that it is safe to assume that these two have booked their Champions League places as such a skill-set will be a must against the Barcelona midfield who given time and space will cause havoc. With these two in place, it is likely that the lessons of the 2009 final will be learnt.
One last thing I would like to mention about this dynamic duo is their similarity to Giggs and Beckham in the wide areas. During this era, it was Beckham who would tend to drift inside at times with Giggs hugging the touchline on the other side. The defensive qualities of these two was much heralded and they built up a great understanding with their full backs who were frequently Gary Neville and Denis Irwin amongst others.
The current pecking order means that the player with the most assists this season is biding his time on the bench. Nani has had a fine season but although he offers arguably more from an attacking point of view than the current incumbents, his defensive play, whilst undeniably much improved, is not yet up to the same standard. I also feel that his unpredictability in attack may also count against him as although opponents will struggle to know what he will do next, frequently his colleagues are left in a similar situation.
Carrick & Giggs - midfield supremacy
These two carried on where they left off in the Champions League 2nd leg at Old Trafford as they eclipsed Chelsea in the centre of the park once again. My review of this game at the time mentions such words as "imperious", "towering", "poise" and "penetration" to describe their partnership and if I used the same again, I would not be far from the truth. Giggs appears to have found a new lease of life in his 38th year. Freed from the burden of tracking up and down the left wing as he has done with such majesty since 1991, he has re-invented himself as an all-round central midfielder who at the moment has few who can get near to his level of performance. Certainly the likes of Essien and Lampard will be thankful they do not have to face him every week as they were chasing shadows once again.
Michael Carrick looks to have matured into the player we all knew he could be. Yesterday was another example of his growing authority and made a mockery of Capello's decision to omit him from the last few England squads. He seems to have mastered the knack of intercepting while exuding the air of a sweeper in front of his back five. What was also noticeable was the range of passing looks like it is returning to his armoury. Where previously, he was derided by uneducated United fans for simple, safe passing and little else, in recent times, he has begun once more to unleash accurate long passes that invariably find their target.
Versatility once again on show
The injury to O'Shea that led to him being substituted at half time could have caused United significant disruption. Into the breech stepped Jonny Evans who once more demonstrated this squad's remarkable versatility. Although primarily a centre back, Evans plays regularly for his country in that position and showed he could adapt in a pressure cooker atmosphere. Late in the game, with Fábio making his customary exit, Chris Smalling was sent on at right back and seemed to thrive as we all knew he would.
I looked at this area in more detail in my Chelsea Champions League First Leg review following Valencia's seamless switch to right back and reading it again shows what a flexible and varied squad we possess. Look around other leading teams and the same cannot be said. It is yet another vital area where we reign supreme over our rivals.
Barcelona at Wembley
With United so perilously close to achieving their true target of the 19th League Championship, a few eyes will undeniably glance towards the Champions League Final on the 28th of May. Following yesterday's performance, I would be very surprised to see too many changes by the time we meet Barcelona. Certainly Evra will take over at left back and Rafael and O'Shea will have their eyes on usurping Fábio on the other flank but otherwise the team and formation looks set. In some ways, yesterday could be seen as somewhat of a dress rehearsal for the real thing in just under three weeks time. Although the opposition will be far superior, the ability on display yesterday will need to be much in evidence against Barcelona. When the La Liga side have the ball (and it may well be for long periods of time), the United midfield will almost become a five with Rooney dropping deep to cover Busquets and Park and Valencia alive to attack from Alves and whoever they pick at left back. If they are able to nick the ball then the dynamic will rapidly change to a swift counter attack using the speed of Valencia, Rooney and Hernández against the occasional cumbersome Catalan back line.
To me, it is clear that we have to offer a threat up front and for this reason Hernández must play and be asked to run himself into the ground for the cause in an attempt to draw the likes of Pique and Puyol out of position. The way to beat Barcelona is to attack them as others have shown and by doing so, there is an inherent risk of being picked off by the quick feet of Xavi, Iniesta and company. If United go on the defensive by picking another midfielder such as Fletcher, then I can only see one winner as the ball will continue to be back in Barcelona's possession in the odd times that we win it. What is clear is that every one of this eleven must be fully rested as they will have to leave every last inch of effort on the Wembley turf for a chance to succeed. The use of substitutes depending on the position of the game will be crucial and with the injury situation all but clear, we now have the options to change the game either defensively or from an attacking point of view.
After a fantastic performance, the lads are all enjoying a well earned day off today. Ideally, picking up at least a point against Blackburn next Saturday is vital in terms of resting players for Wembley. I would then expect a skeleton squad to be picked for the final game of the season against Blackpool. You can be rest assured that the management team have the strength and conditioning department working over time to ensure the squad is in the best physical shape for the huge challenge that lies in wait at the end of May. Whatever happens, it will be a historic season but add the Champions League trophy to the haul and the Manchester United squad of 2010/11 can take their place as one of the very best in our illustrious club's hall of fame.
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