The Times: They [United] had been the more assertive team throughout, defending diligently and attacking with purpose when the opportunity arose, and would surely have claimed something from the game, quite possibly a victory, had not the two big refereeing decisions gone in Chelsea’s favour.
Had the match ended goalless, Martin Atkinson, the referee, would have ended up with a stern rebuke from Ferguson for refusing to award United a penalty in the fourteenth minute, when Antonio Valencia tumbled after appearing to be impeded by Terry. As it was, the United manager was left in a fury, deeply unhappy both with Atkinson’s award of a free kick, for what looked like a fair tackle by Darren Fletcher on Ashley Cole, and with the manner that Wes Brown was obstructed by Didier Drogba when the ball was whipped in from the left-hand side by Lampard.
The United manager was entitled to feel hard done by, though, given that his team, without Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence, had coped admirably to that point with the threat of a Chelsea side who have been in prolific form in recent weeks.
The game was transformed, though, when Fletcher was penalised for his challenge on Ashley Cole. As Lampard swung in the free kick, Terry and Anelka attacked the ball with greater conviction than any of United’s defenders, although Brown had an excuse, having been felled, deliberately or otherwise, by Drogba.
Rooney walked off the pitch mouthing the words “twelve men” into a television camera — a comment that, it is fair to assume, related to the help Chelsea had received from the referee, rather than the Stamford Bridge crowd.
The Guardian: With justification, Ferguson bemoaned the 76th minute winner, complaining about Martin Atkinson’s award of the free-kick for a supposed foul by the outstanding Darren Fletcher on Ashley Cole. The manager had recriminations left over for a protest that Didier Drogba had been off-side as John Terry headed in the Frank Lampard set-piece
Lampard, despite taking the key free-kick, was no menace to United in open play. Drogba, the often irresistible striker, was well-marshalled, despite the fact that Rio Ferdinand missed the match through a calf strain and Nemanja Vidic was only in good enough condition to be an unused substitute.
It was scarcely anticipated that Drogba, who has probably been the most impressive character so far in the Premier League season, would make little impression on an improvised United defence. Whatever else keeps Ferguson awake at nights it will not be a horror that his men lack the appetite for a fourth title in a row.
The Guardian minute by minute:
8mins: Wayne Rooney is played in and the flag goes up, with the striker entirely on his own and clean through, 30 yards from the nearest outfield player and 20 yards from goal. But Ashley Cole, on the near side, is clearly playing him onside. Bad – and crucial – decision.
76mins: GOAL! Chelsea 1 Man Utd 0 (Terry) Frank Lampard’s left-wing free-kick, Terry’s header (maybe his shoulder), and Chelsea take the lead a) against the run of play; b) from a free-kick given against Fletcher for winning the ball pretty cleanly. Controversyometer shoots to 10. Rooney gets booked for protesting.
I should make it clear that I don’t support United, or any Premier League team for that matter – a truly unjust result. Nothing much was made of the early offside decision that denied Rooney an easy chance, but that and the penalty were two game-changing decisions that the referee (and his team) got wrong. He got most other decisions wrong too. I’m not sure about the free-kick that led to the goal – I was typing when it happened – but Fletcher did get the ball, and Martin Atkinson got everything else wrong, so I guess that’s the way I’m leaning. United played really well, did 70% of the attacking, had the game’s outstanding players in Fletcher, Carrick and Valencia and simply shouldn’t have been beaten. (And Anelka won the man of the match award – another unjust decision!)
Genuinely final thoughts: Sorry for those who think I’m making too much of the injustice here. I just think that, once United are denied both a one-on-one featuring their best striker and a penalty within the first 15 minutes, any subsequent result but a United win must be tainted. Other than those clear goalscoring opportunities, United didn’t make any clear goalscoring opportunities. But for those moments, this would have been a common-or-garden against-the-run-of-play 1-0. But as it was, it wasn’t. Is that clear?
The Telegraph: This was such a travesty of justice that Manchester United should follow Chelsea’s recent example and appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Wayne Rooney was utterly brilliant, Darren Fletcher had Deco in one pocket and Michael Ballack in the other, while Patrice Evra mocked Ashley Cole’s billing as the world’s best left-back, yet the table shows Chelsea five points clear. Lady Luck was a blue-rinsed hussy strutting down the King’s Road merrily picking visitors’ pockets.
Just how many black cats United ran over on the way into the Bridge remains unclear but they departed shaking their head at the fickleness of fate. United had so impressed. It was not simply the gutsy way Rooney, Fletcher and Evra largely bossed a game of gathering drama. It was not only the defensive determination of stand-ins such as Wes Brown and Jonny Evans, who flung themselves at shots and crosses as if the season depended on it.
It was not solely Sir Alex Ferguson’s clever tactics, flooding midfield and forcing Chelsea’s full-backs deep. Frustration bit deep into United’s soul because of the genesis and execution of Chelsea’s 76th-minute goal. This was one incident in a long season, just one minute in the 3,420 United will negotiate, but it felt so pivotal.
Challenging Cole for possession, Fletcher clearly targeted the ball but the referee, Martin Atkinson, ruled that the Scotland midfielder had fouled the Chelsea man. Fletcher raged at Atkinson, splenetically spelling out that he had made contact with ball before man. Cole had indeed reacted like a startled cat falling off the airer onto the Aga.
Dismissing all pleas, Atkinson signalled a free-kick and United retreated to form the barricades, seething with injustice. Maybe they were distracted but, for once, the rearguard let down its guard. Brown allowed himself to be wrestled down far too easily by Didier Drogba, a clear foul, but Atkinson’s vision was obscured by Joe Cole.
Yet if it is a sign of champions-in-waiting to pick up points while playing poorly then Ancelotti’s side look ready to end United’s three titles on the spin.