Milan, Munich, Barcelona, Madrid, just four great names that spring to mind when United fans think of European away trips. Nearly 100,000 in the Camp Nou, a rocking San Siro, the sight of the red lights that surround the Allianz, sights you would normally be seeing when you follow the reds in Europe, but just over 40,000 at Stamford Bridge just isn’t quite the same.
This season United have spread themselves across Europe, opening up with a trip to sunny Spain, the long haul to Champions League new boys Bursaspor, a short trip to the ever feisty Ibrox and most recently a trip to southern France to take on Marseille in the unique Stad Velodrome. Chelsea at The Bridge doesn’t set the juices flowing in quite the same way.
I spent the train journey in listening to a pair of posh Londoners discuss the morals of a 10 year old watching ‘Benidorm’ and a female friend who got drunk the other night, needless to say the disapproved at my choice of drink for the journey.
Once off the tube at Earl’s court it was a short walk across the road to collect my match ticket, and then to find a pub, not hard to do as most reds were unlikely to bother wandering too far. 3,000 reds were all congregating on the streets around Earl’s court station, thanks to the nice weather and the inability of police to fit all the reds inside the pubs this was starting to feel more like a European trip.
After a couple of beers at £4 a piece, (and a barman trying to charge me £3.15 for a redbull) a couple of us decided the best bet was the grab some cans from a shop and head elsewhere, down to Putney, to the Cottage, we thought we might check out the MJ statue.
Despite all the publicity it received, Al-Fayed didn’t put it on public display, for the world to see, encouraging tourists in the area to head to The Cottage for a look, it was behind locked gates, a massive let down. No pictures of us climbing on top of what looks like a waxwork, unfortunately.
As we finished off our beers we found out that tickets were going at the ground for £250, a large sum, but not exactly expensive by normal London standards. It proved just how big this game was though, it was THE ticket to have, and we were being rewarded for long trips earlier in the season.
Back on the tube to Fulham Broadway, and the moment you stepped onto the tube it became clear for the first time this was matchday, 90 minutes before kickoff and we had seen our first rent boy, Chelsea home shirt, ‘double winners’ badge on the front, ‘Torres’ on the back, and there were plenty of them. Step off the tube at Fulham Broadway and the road was a sea of replica shirts and David Luiz wigs. I couldn’t help but cringe.
This is a club who should consider Spurs, Arsenal, West Ham and others as their rivals, yet one look at the roadside stalls tells you all you need to know, most of the fans have only been there long enough to know a rivalry with United. One stall sold a plain white t-shirt, with the words ‘I HATE MAN UNITED’ across the front. Typical ABUs
Having met at The Bridge just a month ago, United come into this game with an axe to grind, feeling hard done by on the last 2 visits here, with a certain Leeds supporting referee making some ‘dubious’ decisions. But I’d say thats was just the way Fergie liked it. Rooney the target of a which hunt, Rio vs the man who was given his England armband, Vidic returning to a ground he was sent off in on his last appearance, there were plenty of reasons for the United players to want this more than ever. Maybe it was the dream tie?
The teams entered the pitch, one song and one song only, ‘Viva John Terry’ rang out from the Shed, the home fans applauded, the Matthew Harding stand passed a flag across it, but no atmosphere from them at kickoff. Just saving it surely? Can’t be anything other than pumped up for a Champions League quarter final against the side you lost to in Moscow?
The sight of the teams lining up with Rio back into the United defence alongside Vidic makes for a world of difference, no matter how much talent and potential Smalling has, tonight was not a night for inexperience.
This may have been a game against a side United encounter at least twice a season, usually more, but from the off you could tell this was a European tie, tetchy opening by both side, neither wanted to concede an early goal, but both looking to attack, United knowing how crucial an away goal could be, Chelsea knowing a win was a must in the home leg.
The earliest chance came from Drogba, probably Chelsea’s biggest threat on the night, but his shot was high, and Edwin needed to just reach up and tip it over. A few minutes later came the moment that may well chance the tie.
Michael Carrick, he splits opinions more often than he does defences, but during one of his better performances this season he swung a beautiful ball wide to United’s latest left-back, Ryan Giggs, whose first touch took him past the full back, leaving him enough time to pull the ball back, into space, looking for a red shirt. Who else was going to get on the end of it? Rooney picked his spot and silenced his critics for the second time in a week.
As much as I hated the bloke when he did what he did, my love for him is returning, partly due to the goals he is scoring, but mainly due to the fact he is a United player. That makes him ours. He had spent the first 24 minutes being booed, albeit fairly quietly, by sections of the Chelsea support, men who probably would have sung his name had he hauled an average England side to a World Cup win. And as much as I loathe his actions, I love nothing more than when a United player shuts up opposition support. We pay his wages, we alone can criticise him, and they can go to hell.
But it seemed like forever between the ball reaching Wayne and me realising it had gone in, then all pandemonium erupted, we were ahead at a ground we hadn’t won at in 10 attempts, the ground that had seen us robbed so many times, it was the start we dreamed of.
And it got the United fans into another gear, they were good before, but now they took to taunting the home support. ‘You’re not champions anymore’ was just one song aimed at them, but we got nothing back, it was like they couldn’t hear us, or didn’t know how to chant back.
On the pitch, Chelsea started to get into the game. Torres dived in the box, swung and missed at an acrobatic volley, but then hit the post, with Evra scrambling Lampard’s follow-up off the line. United hanging on a bit, but half-time came and United were ahead. Having been in the exact same situation just a month ago, though, nobody was getting carried away.
Half time was the first time the home supporters made any noise, as Zola was paraded in a desperate attempt to increase the atmosphere, it worked for a minute, but the players were getting an Italian dressing down, hardly likely they would have heard it, let alone have it spur them on.
The second half was entertaining for the neutral no doubt, not so much for the away supporters. It had definitely become a United European performance, giving the ball away, holding defensive discipline, wave after wave of attack on our goal, you could feel something might happen, but as yet Chelsea’s attacks had been blunt, not the Chelsea of old certainly.
Things only got more tense when Rafael picked up and injury and Valencia was forced to right-back, not a natural choice, but in the end proving as effective as Giggs had at left-back against West Ham on Saturday, he is looking every bit a player who we missed during his injury, and is, if you excuse the cliché, like a new signing.
Torres, Essien and Ramires were all booked second half, having all escaped possible bookings first half, but Chelsea supporters will overlook this and say the referee decided the game by not awarding Ramires a penalty, after the last 2 years I say that’s justice.
Chelsea took off their most threatening player, Drogba, in an attempt to change the game, and Malouda replaced Bosingwa, but Chelsea’s lack of depth was shown when they threw on the ‘creative, goal-scoring genius’ that is John Obi Mikel, hardly a change that worried the away supporters.
And it proved to be, time ran out for a Chelsea attack that looked rather toothless. A goal for Torres at home to Wigan on Saturday would be a huge boost for them heading into Tuesday though, even without that I wouldn’t put it past the man who wrote Wayne’s script last night to find room for the ladyboy to hit his first goal for Chelsea in front of the Stretford End next week.
But if United can keep up the impressive defensive form in Europe anything is possible. Only Valencia (in a dead rubber) and Mareille (own goal) have scored against us, 7 clean sheets from 9 games, 5 clean sheets in a row away from home, and now at full strength pending news on Rafael’s knock.
So as United fans made their way off into the night, singing of Wembley journeys ahead, even though this was the least glamorous of all European away trips, with all the tension that we usually associate with a knockout tie, it ended up feeling like one.
United player ratings:
VDS 8, Rafael 7, Rio 8, Vidic 8, Evra 7, Valencia 8, Carrick 9, Giggs 7, Park 7, Rooney 8, Hernandez 6
Written by Anthony Hassan. Follow him on Twitter.