With the pre-match banter between David Moyes and Jose Mourinho, the match between Manchester United and Chelsea began even before the players took the pitch.
When asked about the new management at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho replied:
“For me, the difference is in the routine of meeting a friend, of being together and relaxed for the match, [I] have the guarantee that after the match, independent of the result, we are together again, enjoying our time and having a laugh…with David, we don’t have this kind of relationship, [we don’t] have a good relationship.”
Moyes seemed less concerned with their friendship and more about what to expect from the match. He explained that Chelsea and United were much the same from last year: the same players and new managers. When asked if that meant he knew what to expect, he said:
“No, because you never know what to expect from a new manager. But they don’t know what to expect from me.”
The antics continued when the team sheets were revealed. United’s starting XI included (for the first time this season) Wayne Rooney, who Chelsea have been pursuing since before the season began. Chelsea’s eleven controversially included neither a striker, nor did it involve Juan Mata. Twitter blew up, with the Chelsea faithful divided on whether or not Jose knew what he was doing. It almost seemed like a classic Mourinho dig at the opposition, as if to say, “You won’t sell me Rooney? Fine, I’ll beat you and I won’t even start a striker.”
All that was before the match.
As for the match, it lived up to the hype.
The first half started with a lot of pace and intensity, as United pressed early and often with the intent of getting the ball and holding it. They won the possession battle 57-43%, but didn’t necessarily create the better chances. Rooney found himself in open space from time to time and showed good quality both with his runs, his passing, and a shot on goal following some clever changes in direction. United were relentless in their approach to break down the Chelsea defense, and created a few chances, but were usually foiled, including a high cross to Robin van Persie that he couldn’t keep down, and a high (though well-taken) left-footed shot by Tom Cleverley after a pressured-filled bout of possession.
Chelsea’s best chances in the first half came through Oscar, who showed classic pace and ability to track to all portions of the pitch, got the ball in good areas, but was unable to take shots that challenged David de Gea.
There were moments of incredible physicality in the first half, with 5 fouls by United and 3 by Chelsea, including questionable tackles by Ashley Cole on Van Persie and Antonio Valencia on Oscar. Referee Martin Atkinson had enough when Kevin de Bruyne challenged Van Persie in the 32nd minute, resulting in the first booking of the match.
The second half changed face only a little, as the game became much wider. Patrice Evra in particular was very good in widening play for United, while Fernando Torres came on in the 60th minute, enabling Andre Schurrle to play on the right wing and open up play for Chelsea. Regardless, every chance for either team had a way of being wasted or otherwise foiled. Danny Welbeck got what appeared to be an easy shot in the box, but he scuffed it to his right and away from the goal. Schurrle got open on a good run but was called back for being offside. And it seemed that every time United began a counter attack, Gary Cahill and John Terry were there to brilliantly break up the attack.
The second half wasn’t without its controversy, however. For the second (and third) time in two games, Chelsea were on the fortunate end of a handball call in their own penalty box, as Frank Lampard stopped a shot with his outstretched arm. Old Trafford erupted in boos toward Martin Atkinson, but he responded, “play on.” Then later on, John Obi Mikel had a shot hit his arm, was turned toward the goal and had his arms to his sides, and the referee didn’t call the foul.
The match ended as tense as it began, with a corner for United in the final minute of stoppage. Van Persie flicked in the kick, and it bounced around several times before being cleared out of danger, after which the match ended.
For the average soccer fan, a 0-0 can be hard to watch. This one was not without its takeaways for both teams, however.
First of all, this match was a perfect display of the excellence of Chelsea’s back four. For me, Gary Cahill may have been the best player in the entire match, but at least for Chelsea. His positioning was excellent, and he broke up many of United’s chances. He cleared out a lot of late danger and marked well. But much the same could be said of John Terry (on one play he was caught in the center circle when United began a counter attack) and Branislav Ivanovic, who also played a big role in bringing play forward for Chelsea on the right side. Ashley Cole had his lapses in the first half, struggling both on and off the ball, but in the second half tightened things up and made good defensive plays. The argument could be made that Chelsea have one of the better back fours in the Premier League, if not (dare I say) the best, when in form.
Second, United’s problems in central midfield are a little overplayed. Perhaps this was a result of having Wayne Rooney in the side (which we’ll get to momentarily,) but Michael Carrick and especially Cleverley had good games going up against a pressuring and paced Chelsea midfield. They didn’t use the long ball as often as analysts predicted, and seemed able to create chances even while keeping the ball on the ground. That’s not to say United don’t have issues, but perhaps they’re not as bad as they’re made out to be.
Third and finally, Rooney is a really good player. This speaks for itself, and it’s not exactly been in question, but seeing him for a full 90 minutes was a reminder of why he is so highly coveted. He played very well behind Van Persie, causing frustration in the defensive midfield of Chelsea, and provided very good passes, both short and long, along with great vision to pick out the open player. It’ll be interesting to see where he ends up, and how he’ll be used. Last week against Swansea, United played a 4-2-3-1, and this week a 4-4-1-1. Obviously the goals poured in last week, but this week they faced a more difficult test in the defense of Chelsea. The Rooney transfer saga continues to be an interesting one.