Manchester United lost to John Terry’s late header at Stamford Bridge but Chelsea has referee Martin Atkinson to thank for the victory. Atkinson and his assistants made not one, or two but three glaring errors in the lead-up to the Londoners’ goal to hand Chelsea a five point lead at the top of the Premier League.
The manner of defeat, coming after an impressive United display, is particularly galling but Sir Alex Ferguson’s men leave town in the knowledge that the home side was forced to rely on luck – and officialdom – for the win.
Ferguson, without injured central defensive pair Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, predictably selected Wayne Rooney to plough a lone furrow up-front. Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia offered support in wide areas with Dimitar Berbatov also absent through injury. Ferguson, often the gambler, chose to play safe and United produced a disciplined performance against a Chelsea side unbeaten at home.
United edged a tense first half that offered few chances from a solid midfield foundation. Indeed, Brown and Evans, so haphazard against CSKA Moscow in midweek, soaked up everything Diddier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka threw at them.
The officials were to have an early hand in Chelsea’s victory though. Prior to their involvement in the home side’s goal, Atkinson and co. twice denied United in the first half. Firstly when Anderson put Rooney through on goal, only for the assistant to incorrectly rule the striker offside and then Atkinson failed to blow when Terry hauled Valencia to the ground in the area.
Darren Fletcher, dominant in midfield, saw a shot blocked by Ricardo Carvlho while Giggs and Michael Carrick also tested the Chelsea ‘keeper in the opening period.
Rooney twice went close after the break as United continue to ask more questions than the home side. First the Scouser drove inches wide of Petr Cech’s post then the former-Everton striker forced a top class save from the ‘keeper with a curling shot.
But all United’s work was undone as the officials gifted Chelsea a late winner. Fletcher, winning the ball cleanly from Ashley Cole, was harshly judged to have fouled the former Arsenal left-back on United’s right. Frank Lampard swung over the free kick for Terry to head home.
The officials, perhaps blinded by their unity with an insulted colleague, ignored both Drogba’s foul on Wes Brown and the offside position of the Ivorian.
Ferguson sent on Michael Owen and Gabriel Obertan to retrieve the situation but it was too late as United slipped to yet another away defeat to a ‘top four’ side.
Finally, Chelsea’s plastic fans – most of whom only discovered the club existed in 2003 – sprung into life. Meanwhile, United’s travelling army leave town beaten but proud that their team was worthy of much more.
Predictably Ferguson attacked the referee post match, blaming the Yorkshire-born official for failing to spot Fletcher’s clean challenge.
“The referee’s position to make the decision was absolutely ridiculous, he can’t see anything,” said the Scot.
“It was a bad decision. You lose faith in refereeing sometimes, that’s the way the players are talking in there.”
“That goal should never have been allowed,” added Ferguson.
“We’ve dominated the game; we’ve had great chances to win the match and not taken them – and that’s our fault.
“We had great opportunities to get to the edge of the box and some really good chances in and around the box, but we should be finishing it off.
“We’ve only ourselves to blame in that respect. But you do need a break – and we never got the break we needed.”