After a match like that, it is always difficult to describe one’s overriding emotion as it flicks between pleasure and disappointment, the concession of a three-goal lead against Manchester United counter-balanced by the realism that most of us would have accepted a draw prior to kick off.
But 24 hours is a long time in the mind of a football fan and, having slept on it, there are considerably more positives than negatives for Chelsea to take out of the game.
In the build up to the game, there was concern that a defence lacking its leader and world-class full-back could be swamped by the free-flowing triumvirate of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia. Injuries to our most consistent player in Ramires and our talismanic goalscorer in Frank Lampard suggested the team would be frail in midfield. Didier Drogba’s protracted participation at the African Cup of Nations – with the big man scoring two-goals in Ivory Coast’s quarter-final win over co-hosts Equatorial Guinea – meant our forward line would continue to struggle to find the net.
Except for the last point, those concerns proved to be entirely without foundation.
Gary Cahill performed admirably on his début especially as he was filling the shoes of John Terry. His positional sense and decision-making were generally excellent while his pace was a welcome safety net to any counter-attacks from the opposition. Had his rasping effort in injury-time eluded David De Gea’s fingertips and nestled in the back of the net, his first appearance in a Chelsea shirt would have been the stuff of dreams. His presence also seemed to rub off onto David Luiz who had a surprisingly assured game against the Premier League champions – a stark contrast to the last time he faced them at the back-end of last season when his cataclysmic error in the opening seconds effectively confirmed the title would return to Old Trafford. Sideshow David defended without causing too many hearts to flutter and he distributed the ball intelligently, creating attacking opportunities with defence-splitting passes for both Florent Malouda and Fernando Torres.
While it was disappointing that Ryan Bertrand was not afforded the chance to start at left-back in the absence of Ashley Cole – what exactly has the first choice England U21 left back have to do to get a game? – the error-prone Jose Bosingwa coped well, for the most part, with the threat of Valencia. Branislav Ivanovic, on the other flank, was nothing short of outstanding.
As you may have read in an earlier post, I am not the biggest fan of Raul Meireles but his performance on Sunday was by far his best since he came to the club. His passing was crisp and decisive and he took care of the ball when in possession. Playing as one of two in the middle of the park, he correctly picked when to sit and when to move into the space between United’s midfield and attack thereby helping to create forward momentum without abandoning his defensive responsibilities. All in all, a man of the match performance and a statement I thought that I would never see myself writing in conjunction with the Portuguese. Alongside him, Michael Essien showed exactly what we have missed so far this season with his physical dynamism disrupting the rhythm of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick.
Andre Villas-Boas must also be commended for the tactical switch to 4-4-2. The decision was a bold one but it paid off during the first 55 minutes. Unfortunately, he allowed dreams of absolutely thumping Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to defer the change back to a more defensive outlook until after the Red Devils had a foothold in the game with the first penalty of the day. Had he packed the midfield with the scoreline reading 3-0 in his favour, there is every chance that the game would have been ridden out without too much alarm. To compound the hesitancy, when the obvious change did take place, AVB curiously opted to withdraw the effervescent Daniel Sturridge rather than the hitherto and henceforth atrocious Malouda who, this season, appears to have zero imagination when in the attacking third. That in itself did not cost the Chelsea the victory but it certainly blunted our goal threat and dismayed supporters – and no doubt, Sturridge himself.
However, everything could still have come up roses had Fernando Torres shown a natural goalscorer’s instinct and pulled the trigger with his favoured right-foot after bamboozling the United defence to create as clear a sight of goal as you could hope to get. Choosing to cut back inside and thus spurn the opening further underlined his dearth of confidence and served to undermine what up till then had been a an excellent display of centre- forward hustle and bustle even if he failed to test De Gea at any point.
Still, when all is said and done, it feels like a point gained rather than two lost and with our next four league matches being against Everton, Bolton, West Brom and Stoke, we now have the opportunity to turn the positives into points and pull away from those pesky Gooners.