A Wayne Rooney goal sent the traveling Manchester United supporters into raptures in the 24th minute of their Champions League quarter final clash with Chelsea FC, and it was to remain that way until the final whistle, giving Sir Alex Ferguson’s men the edge heading back for the return leg at Old Trafford.
The man stealing the headlines in the build up to the match cut a much more elated figure after he capped off a lovely move that began just in front of the center circle. Michael Carrick, who undoubtedly put in his best shift of the campaign so far, picked out the run of Ryan Giggs with a lofted through ball deep into the Chelsea half. The Welsh Wizard took the ball in his stride with an immaculate first touch that took him around José Bosingwa, and delivered an equally excellent square ball that picked out an unmarked Rooney to slot home from some ten yards.
Rooney’s attitude was completely different to the one he had against West Ham at the weekend, and there was to be no foul-mouthing or anger in his celebration, as the striker looked elated and overjoyed with his efforts, sliding, slipping and rolling before his team mates joined in the celebrations. But most importantly, the striker had a smile on his face.
It was to be the only goal in a match that ebbed and flowed throughout it’s course, with Chelsea unable to find the back of the net despite creating several chances and controlling much of the second half. The home side can count themselves a little unlucky as Drogba’s cross-come-shot came off the foot of the woodwork, only for Lampard’s follow up to equally frustrate the Blues as Evra was in the right place at the right time to clear off the line. Chelsea also had a penalty decision turned down right at the death, with Patrice Evra the man involved again, taking down Ramires in the box in what can only be described as a heart-in-mouth situation for every United supporter. Lucky for them though, the referee waved play on, however replays do suggest that United were lucky to not see the referee pointing to the spot.
Fernando Torres continued his disappointing Chelsea career as he cut a frustrated figure throughout the match. The £50m Spaniard began with a flurry, looking sharp, however it was short lived as he was unable to reproduce anywhere near his best form. That takes his baron run for Chelsea to nine games, and surely the striker is starting to feel the pressure, despite his best efforts and following his deliciously placed header thwarted by a full stretch diving Edwin van der Sar in the second half.
This tie is by far and away the most evenly poised heading into the second leg, but Manchester United can take plenty away from this match and go into the return leg at Old Trafford full of confidence. It was an excellent team display that saw them nullify Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and come out on top with that vital away goal.
The return of Rio Ferdinand proved a brilliant piece of timing as the former England captain made his first start since February in the United back four. His return could not have come at a better time and it seemed as though he had been playing week-in week-out. He showed perfect awareness to be alert to the danger posed by Chelsea and his anticipation was brilliant as he marshaled his back line alongside Nemanja Vidic. The two talismanic defenders were first to almost every ball and showed authority when necessary in order to keep Chelsea at bay. It is displays like this that allow us to see the true value of this defensive pairing, as both Ferdinand and Vidic showed somewhat telepathic communication helping United keep a clean sheet. On the night, this defensive pairing was flawless, much to the dismay of the home team.
Elsewhere on the pitch, it was Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia who pulled the strings in the midfield for United. As aforementioned, Carrick most certainly put in his best performance of the season, dictating play for the majority of the first half with an array of long and short passes that constantly found red shirts around the pitch, while also being tactically sound defensively throughout the second half as Chelsea looked for an equaliser. Likewise, Ryan Giggs put in another performance that wound back the clock. The 37 year old Welsh winger showed grace on and off the ball as he reveled in a central midfield role, emphasised with a wonderful touch and sublime vision to create the first goal and a constant thorn in Chelsea’s side. Add these two performances to the industry of Park Ji-Sung and the speed and drive of wide man Antonio Valencia and it’s clear to see the midfield had a very good night.
Finally, in the attacking third United began with Hernandez and Rooney. While looking like a spectator for much of the game, Hernandez was constantly making devious runs and jinks deep inside the Chelsea half. His speed, agility and movement are an asset to any team and his ability to be in the right place at the right time is impeccable. He also played a part in Rooney’s goal with a clever bit of movement to draw Chelsea’s defenders towards him and away from Rooney. No one expected this sort of impact from The Little Pea when he first signed for United, definitely not in his first season anyway. Of course Rooney I have already mentioned however his drive and ability were all on show tonight, and he showed great composure to slot the ball into the far bottom corner. What was most important was the smile on his face as he celebrated with teammates, which are in stark contrast to his angry foul-mouthed outburst at the camera against West Ham.
The performance was by no means a perfect one, and the result may well have been different had the referee taken a different view on a number of decisions. However there is no easy way to overcome Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and they are not a side who will give up at any stage throughout a match, especially not a two-legged tie. United need to put in another solid performance at Old Trafford if they are to progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League this year, however based on this performance, the signs of progression are promising.