Sir Alex Ferguson has never quite had a stable rival in his time in England. I mean you can argue that Liverpool and City remain our eternal rivals regardless whether they compete with us or not for silverware but the manager has had some good things to say about them----and we all know that when Sir Alex starts praising you, you're no longer deemed worthy competition.
Arsenal were his first big headache in his time at United so far considering that Newcastle and Blackburn were not as consistent as the Gunners. When Arsene Wenger took the 'Liverpool route' and lost interest in the title, Roman Abramovich's money came in and that gave Sir Alex some sort of new competition. I'm sure he didn't take them seriously until they defended the league in 2006--something that even Arsenal had failed to do. That forced him into another re-building process that saw us win the league in 2007 for the first time since 2003---the longest the league had been away from its traditional home since 1993.
The departure of Jose Mourinho and the constant change of coaches at the Stamford Bridge club has not prevented the Rent Boys from being such a pain in United's quest for silverware. That we have battled them for the title in each season since 2005 is testament to how much they have got on our nerves in the last few years. I mean when the Premier League announce the fixture calender every summer, you pick out the Liverpool dates and the City ones but its increasingly becoming impossible to ignore the date we play Chelsea as more often than not, the fixture has decided the destiny of the title. It should be recalled that we've had to do battle with them even on the European stage for honours--a point neither of our previous rivals had got us to.
However you thought that we had put them in their place when we on the league treble for the second time between 2007-2009. After ruining our bid to make history by winning it four times, Sir Alex found himself with another job of his hands---returning the trophy to its rightful cabinet.
Chelsea did beat us at every opportunity the had last season but there was a sense of injustice about the way the won their games against us. Perhaps that what made this season's victories against them all the more sweet.
I'll start from the 2009 Community Shield fixture that saw them beat us on penalties. Michael Ballack elbowed Evra in the move that led them to scoring a second goal. The referee did not see it---despite the fact that it was as blatant as it could possibly have been but that is not what you expect from your opponents in a sport based on fair play. Wayne Rooney restored parity to send the game to penalties but the fact that we lost the shootout did irk many fans.
Then came the first clash between the two clubs in the league at Stamford Bridge. With the game level and on the balance of play in our favour given that they didn't bother EVDS significantly, the Martin Atkinson awarded Chelsea a free kick that never was. Darren Fletcher had taken the ball from Ashely Cole but it was given. John Terry scored from Lampard's free-kick with a header but the goal was an illegitimate one on three counts: Firstly that it wasn't a free-kick, secondly because Wes Brown was clearly fouled in the area by Drogba who attempted to connect with the ball from (thirdly) an offside position. None of those incidents was spotted by the linesman or the ref so it was gutting that that goal turned out to be the winner.
Of course these decisions even themselves throughout the season because United too have benefited from the same so you hopped that in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, we'd get something going our way. However it was not to be as for the third time in a fixture against Chelsea, the decision would go against us; Drogba's winning goal was scored from an offside position---a clear 2 metres away from our defence at the time the ball is played. Again, a poor decision by the ref would hand Chelsea the win. They went on to finish just a point above us despite beating us twice in the league. We were left to reflect on what might have been if just one of those decisions had gone our way.
Roll on to 2010/2011 season and as fate would have it, the season would also start with a Community Shield face-off between the two clubs. We hadn't done much of an investment in the summer (Chicharito, Bebe, Smalling)--at least compared to them but the sense of injustice, we hopped, would spur us on to overhaul them.A 3-1 win in the curtain raiser was therefore as sweet as you can imagine. This time there was no poor decision to save the day for them. I hopped that we had turned a corner on them.
I would later on in the season proper be proved wrong. Martin Atkinson---the same referee who took charge of the Stamford Bridge fiasco a the season before was picked to take charge of the game. We battered them in the second half and went infront courtesy of a Wayne Rooney cracker of goal. Then Atkinson failed to book any of Chelsea's players despite the tough tackling they employed whenever we were in possession. David Luiz in particular committed three yellow card offences in the span of half an hour. That the Brazilian then equalised at a time he should have been in the shower made it all the more gutting. But Atkinson's mission was not yet done; after waving away murderous challenges by David Luiz all match, he awarded Chelsea a penalty. Chris Smalling hardly touched Zirhkov but Atkinson couldn't have pointed to the spot any faster. Lampard scored from the spot and for the umpteenth time, Chelsea beat us because of a poor refereeing decision.
Sir Alex lost it. I mean I lost it too. He, spoke our minds when he said that he noted the pattern of results Chelsea had Stamford Bridge with Atkinson in charge--particularly the fact that they had benefited twice against us from the same official.The FA banned the manager for saying the truth---a total of five matches in the stands. Not that the ban affected us that much but it only served to worsen the sense of injustice we felt against Chelsea. It was bad enough that they were beating us but that they were doing it with the help of officials made it all the more painful.
Call it fate or whatever you like but the Champions League last eight draw paired us against Chelsea. I could hardly believe our luck. I mean surely this was our turn to get something over them---with our without help from the officials. The draw meant that we would play Chelsea three more times before the season would close but given that at the time we were so far ahead of them in the league, the Champions League ties would be the ones they'd feel the hurt we felt if could win them. Its synonymous to all that Roman Abramovich badly wants that European Cup at Stamford Bridge so you can imagine how excited I felt when we were presented the chance of trashing that European dream for a second time---en route to making a claim for our own.
The fact that we were now going to be under European officials rather the domestic officials gave me a sense on comfort given that you'd expect more objective refereeing. Going into the first leg in London, we hadn't won there since a 3-0 win in 2002. An away goal or a score draw was the best we ans were hopping for so you can imagine the feeling when we registered a win there. We would go on to win at home in the return leg as well and effectively end their European dream for another year. That was sweet. But for some reason, I wanted us to end our domestic woes against them too.
Call it fate or whatever you like but between March 1 and last Sunday, our league form was such that we didn't throw away so many points to lose our place in the league but also that Chelsea would get close to us to reduce a once 15 point gap to just three. That suddenly gave as much importance to the final fixture between the two clubs as we had anticipated t the start of the season. It was more like a Premier League finale--but for me, it was a chance to once and for all strike the upper cut against a side I had grown to hate even more than our other established rivals over the past two seasons---largely because we seemed to play against 12 men (something Wayne whispered at Stamford Bridge after a defeat there the season before) whenever we played them. Finally a chance to heal all the hurtful pain we had suffered against them for over a year and above all, a chance to reclaim our trophy and return it to its rightful Old Trafford home.
How fitting it was that it was David Luiz's blunder that gave Hernandez (a victim of his fouling at Stamford Bridge in March) the opportunity to put us in the lead in just 36 seconds. I've already blogged (in my review) that I nearly kicked the telly whilst celebrating. You can therefore imagine the smile on my face when Ancellotti started giving Luiz a telling off on pitch and warming up Alex after just five minutes. I mean you couldn't have written the script. Then Captain Vida made it 2-0 and given that he was sent off in the March 1 fiasco, his celebration told of a man whose revenge had been meted out in the sweetest of fashions.
By the time Howard Webb blew the final whistle on Sunday, even the usually calm and composed Sir Bobby Charlton was clapping off the final few seconds of the match. We had beaten Chelsea for the third time in the season. That once again the decisions went against us( Ivanovic should have been sent off and Lampard's handball should have merited us a penalty) but we still won and battered them throughout made it an even more sweeter victory----it made it extra special. For me, it was as big as a triumph of Good over Evil!
Labels: MANCHESTER UNITED