Manchester United remained the only club to have gone through the first five matches of the 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season with a 100% record, after they won their most difficult fixture of the season so far, in beating Chelsea 3-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday 18th September 2011.
United started once more with a youthful looking back five, as Evans and Jones started at centre half in place of the injured Ferdinand and Vidic. They were playing in front of young goalkeeper David De Gea, and flanked by Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra, with the Frenchman the elder statesman in this talented defence.
It was Smalling who was to make the biggest impact early on, when he put United ahead after just 8 minutes of play. Ashley Young produced another inch perfect set-piece, curling an inviting cross into the Chelsea penalty area, onto which Smalling ran, unmarked, to glance into Petr Cech’s top corner. On closer inspection, Smalling’s early run looked marginally offside, but this was anything but clear-cut in real time: Chelsea should have followed the run nonetheless.
United then moved up a gear, and proceeded to take the game beyond their London-based title rivals, with two further first half goals. The second of the match was the pick of the bunch, as Nani was allowed time 25 yards from goal. Nani did what he usually does in such circumstances, and lashed a powerful curling shot straight into the top left corner of Cech’s goal with the outside of his right boot, to take the scoreline to 2-0 on 37 minutes.
On the stroke of half time, more good work from Nani resulted in the ball squirming through to Wayne Rooney who was free on the penalty spot following a scramble in the Chelsea area. Rooney had little to do other than sweep the ball past Cech’s despairing dive to round off a strong first half performance.
In the second period, Chelsea came out looking much better. In particular, Fernando Torres began to make an impression on the match, and it was he who got the blues off the mark when timing a good run, which was well spotted by Anelka, before producing a sublime chipped finish over the outrushing De Gea on 46 minutes.
Chelsea had given themselves a lifeline, but it looked like this had been snubbed out ten minutes later when referee Dowd pointed to the spot as Nani fell to the ground under a challenge from Boswinga, who looked to have won the ball in his last-ditch tackle. Rooney stepped up confidently, but his left foot failed to plant, and he slid through the ball, blasting it well wide as a result. A technical glitch, rather than any mistake on Rooney’s part, and the player seemed to see the funny side of it immediately after.
Rooney’s smiles could have turned upside down, though, had Fernando Torres finished a couple of powerful runs he made soon after. The first saw him volley narrowly over the bar; while the second could prove to be the miss of the season, as the Spanish forward burst into the area, performed a step-over to take the ball past De Gea, then, with the open goal gaping, prodded his left-footed finish well wide. While United fans derided the former Liverpool star, Torres’ run and movement had been impressive, and he looked close to his best in this second half.
But miss he did, and Chelsea proved unable to get on the score-sheet again and chase a point in earnest – goals are still proving hard to come by for the West London outfit – as the match gradually wound down to finish 3-1 to United.
For Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, it was business as usual: they continue their excellent run of form, and now sit clear on 15 points form 15 at the top of the table, following City’s draw away at Fulham an hour earlier. Chelsea, however, will be pleased by the green shoots of returning form displayed by their team and, in particular, Fernando Torres in a second half during which they more than held their own against the team who is currently best in the land.
Both of these teams will be right up there come the season’s end: the Stamford Bridge renewal will be every bit as entertaining as this enthralling battle.