When you schedule a game between potential title rivals at this stage of the season, the result can often be a sparring bout that, more often than not, is won by a single goal. Much of that could be said of this encounter, apart from the goal of course. Mourinho’s return to English football may bring an entertaining injection of charisma and psychological come-ons, but at heart he remains the arch pragmatist: you imagine seven points out of nine in the first three games would have been his aim and that’s what he he’s got. Certainly, the formation Chelsea started the game with – no recognised striker and no Juan Mata – had ‘stalemate’ stamped across it as the aim and that was largely what they got.
In this chess-like encounter, though, David Moyes played his part. United enjoyed more possession but Moyes was clearly unwilling to take too many risks and. It’s tempting to imagine that, faced with a similar scenario, Fergie might have tossed the die and gone all out for the win. You sensed that here the main thing for Moyes in the long haul of a title race was not to blink. He played an attacking starting eleven, with Van Persie up front and Rooney, Welbeck and Valencia supporting. Chelsea defended well but, equally, the presence of these players ensures Ramires, who so often performs well against United, was restricted to a deeper position in midfield. This was, no doubt, Mourinho’s intention, but United created enough of a threat to ensure he wasn’t going to revise it.
Cleverley sat alongside Carrick to protect against a Chelsea midfield that caused us big problems in their last two visits of Old Trafford. Mourinho, however, had Schurrle occupying an unfamiliar lone role up front and his service largely consisting of balls lumped forward from his deep-lying colleagues. United had much of the possession but failed to create a clear opportunity despite an encouragingly lively ninety minutes from Rooney, whose fierce shot tipped around the post by Cech in the second half was the best effort of a game with few shots on target. Chelsea were restricted to long-range efforts comfortably held by De Gea, their forays forward invariably snuffed out by Vidic and Ferdinand, as immaculate as the central defensive duo at the other end of the pitch.
Given the three goals shipped by city at the weekend, both managers may well take away from this particular pleasure that their defences held up so well over the ninety minutes of a big game. You suspect, however, that David Moyes will take particular pleasure from the performance of Rooney, whose attacking verve and spirit throughout the game made him the stand-out player on the pitch. If Rooney is now to stay at Old Trafford, at least for another season, Moyes’ handling of the affair should be congratulated. He’s been firm in opposing the sale from the outset and has managed his return to the team thoughtfully and with no little courage. To send him out for his first full game against his admirers at Chelsea was an audacious move and the result was at Wayne Rooney very close to his best.
I don’t know what will happen with Rooney next summer, but this season I relish the thought of a player of his character fired up and with something to prove, whether to United or to any other potential suitors. Not only that but, on the evidence of this evening, the failure to land him could leave Chelsea without the cutting edge they might have been happy to live without in this game, but which they may well rue the lack of later in the season.
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