I know this was technically pre-season, but this defeat really hurts. After a summer void of football (the Confederation’s Cup doesn’t quite cut it, despite Team USA’s admirable run), I was craving a full-strength United taking on proper opposition. I wanted United to prove to everyone that they could get on fine without that what’s-his-name who went to Madrid. Maybe it was because they proved just that and could have been up 3-0 before letting Chelsea back in with two scrappy goals and some shoddy goalkeeping. Perhaps it was the injustice of their second goal, and the Chelsea fans’ ensuing abuse of Patrice Evra. The poor penalties didn’t help either. One thing is for sure though; this match was no friendly. And if there is anything positive to take out of this match, United fans can come out knowing that Fergie will have a not so quiet word with the appropriate bodies, and Chris Foy will probably not be officiating United for a while.
I won’t bore you with any match report, because you all know what happened. However, here are a few things I noticed. (highlights below)
First, Ben Foster was a disaster in goal. It was a 50/50 chance between him and Kuszczak, and I guess Fergie was unlucky with the toss. The Englishman got the nod to start in front of Capello but the pressure of playing in front of the England manager at Wembley surely got to him. Chelsea took a few potshots early on which should have helped his confidence, but he couldn’t even hang on to them. His clearances were consistently among the worse I had ever seen and he almost tripped over himself on numerous occasions when asked to play the ball with his feet. He also should have done better with both goals, although they were not entirely his fault. For the first, he was clearly intimidated by the onrushing Drogba, causing him to flail at the ball and his weak punch fell kindly to Carvalho who then had the simple job of heading into an open net. Clear the ball and then take the hit. Don’t take the hit and then fail to clear. He also should have done better with the second goal even though I would have bet my house that Lampard would score and play should have been stopped 15 seconds before (but we will get to that later). The ball went across him, he was able to get both hands on it, but it still snuck in. Mr. Capello will not have been impressed with this performance. However, he is a great talent and we are sure to see more of him this campaign.
On a more positive note, is it just me or has Berbatov gotten thinner? He looks fitter, faster and he has clearly taken the fans’ criticisms of him in stride. He was chasing down balls, tracking back and just looked more up for it than last year. This is very good. He also showcased his skill and style with a number of nice flicks and takedowns.
Nani also played one of his better games for United. He and Evra teamed up very well on the left flank and terrorized Ivanovic, leading to his substitution at halftime. His goal was uncannily Ronaldo-like as well – he cut in from the left and let fly from outside the box. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come. Perhaps he can stake out a starting spot now that he is no longer in Ronaldo’s shadow. Unfortunately, he dislocated a shoulder in the 2nd half and will miss the first few games of the season.
Finally, and most bitterly, the second goal should not have happened. Foy should have stopped the game long before Chelsea regained possession and created a chance. A relatively recent rule change calls for the referee (not the linesmen) to halt play, if he sees fit, when a player goes down injured (rather than the players kicking the ball out). If the injury has to do with the head/facial areas, the referee will usually stop play immediately. Now, Ballack raised his arm and dropped his shoulder into Evra. It was obstruction, a clear foul and Foy has a pretty good view of it. So, play should have been stopped there, for starters – it was a clear foul right in front of the referee. Evra fell to the ground, clutching his face and play continued. Play is usually stopped, but fine. Around 20 seconds later, Chelsea score on a 2 v 3 situation (as Evra was on the ground on the other side of the pitch). The commentators spoke of how you always play to the whistle and United switched off after what they thought was a foul, but are they telling me United ‘switched off’ for 20 seconds? Count how long it takes for Chelsea to even regain possession of the ball. Don’t talk about how Manchester United ‘stopped playing’. It was pretty evident Chelsea weren’t going to put the ball out – it took nearly 20 seconds to set the goal up! Evra was down that whole time, following a clear and hard tackle that caught him in the face. But this is what really made United fans (and Fergie) angry. No more than 5 minutes before, Foy had stopped the game with United in attack after Ballack was on the floor pretending that Evra had stepped on his ribcage. No real contact, and Ballack was up and about in 10 seconds. I don’t know what it is about referees, but they just don’t seem to understand that fans want to see consistency. That is the magic word. If you’re making the wrong decisions, make them for both teams. Consistency is all we want. If you stop play for Ballack, how do you not stop play for Evra? Ridiculous. And to make matters worse, Evra was later booked for a challenge on Ballack. He went in strong, and obviously full of emotion but clearly got the ball before making contact with the German. Thankfully, Ballack chose not to act but Foy booked Evra anyway. We’re in England, Mr. Foy. This isn’t Spain, or Italy. We like our tackles like that. Hard but fair. Do we want our game to be void of emotion? Well then keep on booking players for showing any signs of it.
I guess we could have expected such from a man who booked Berbatov after 4 mintues for a Chelsea free-kick (deep in their own half) nicking his back/foot/or head (I’m not sure what it hit). What a joke. And on his way up to receive his medal, he handed out his yellow and red cards to the crowd. He just loves taking them out of his pocket, doesn’t he?
Anyways, I tell myself that this was only pre-season. Next week, it really starts.