Another trip to Stamford Bridge, another controversial refereeing performance. Once again referee Martin Atkinson got the big calls wrong and they cost Manchester United dearly on Tuesday night as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea. Wayne Rooney’s superb first half strike had given United a deserved lead at the interval before a David Luiz goal and a Frank Lampard penalty sealed a win for the hosts in the second period.
Ferguson’s post-match ire at the referee, which may yet earn the 69-year-old Scot an FA charge, came after a series of important decisions went against United. It is not the first time Atkinson has been at the centre of controversy involving the Reds. Last season the Leeds-based official ignored two legitimate penalty claims by United’s players and then awarded Chelsea a soft free kick that led eventually to the Londoners’ winning goal.
On Tuesday, Atkinson again changed the course of the game, sending off United’s captain Nemanja Vidic late in the game, failing to similarly show David Luiz red and awarding the softest of spot kicks to the home side. Atkinson also failed to spot a first-half handball by Chelsea captain John Terry that should have earned the visitors a penalty. Decisions that may cost United in the Premier League title race.
But with defeat also comes internal analysis. Atkinson’s awful performance – was it rank incompetence or lack of “fairness” as Ferguson later mused – aside, United capitulated in the second period, with the Reds’ soft midfield underbelly once again exposed. Chelsea’s goals from Luiz, following Patrice Evra’s positional error and then the penalty, after Michael Carrick needlessly gave the ball away, were entirely avoidable.
Worse still, the visitors invited much of Chelsea’s pressure in the second period – unable as United’s midfield seemed to exert any influence on the match. Ferguson’s decision not to strengthen his midfield ahead of the season may yet cost the club.
Still, in the aftermath the Scot chose, understandably perhaps, to focus on Atkinson’s performance and not his own side’s failings.
“You want a fair referee – or a strong referee, anyway – and we didn’t get that,” said Ferguson, who also criticised the Leeds-based after last season’s visit to Stamford Bridge.
“When I saw who the referee was I did fear it. I feared the worst. It was incredible. Even before that he [Luiz] had done Chicharito off the ball. He’d done him late. Nothing done, the referee’s in front of it.
“He does Rooney clear as day, [the referee is] six yards from it, he doesn’t do anything. That changed the game. These are decisions that change the game. And he’s going to be refereeing every week.
“That’s three years in a row now. It’s hard to take. The Luiz foul was six yards in front of the referee, maybe eight if we give him the benefit of the doubt, no obstructions whatsoever.
“I don’t know how he [Luiz] stayed on the pitch. And the penalty was very soft. In actual fact, Chris has taken the ball and the player’s left his leg in. Very soft. Amazing.”
In that Ferguson is generous, with accusations of a Yuri Zhirkov dive far closer to the mark as Chelsea clawed its way back into the match with an approach that often sailed close to the wind.
The match began brightly for United though, with Ferguson surprisingly leaving out his top scorer Dimitar Berbatov in favour of Mexican youngster Javier Hernández. It was Ferguson’s first unchanged line-up in 165 matches, dating back to 2008.
And with Wayne Rooney partnering the 22-year-old, United deployed a 4-4-2 system against Chelsea for the first time in recent memory. It created an open match in which the visitors offered the greater threat during a lively first 45. Indeed, Hernández and Rooney almost combined with just minutes on the clock. The Mexican exchanged passes with Evra before firing across the six yard area just out of Rooney’s reach.
Rooney then headed wide as the home crowd got on top of the £27 million United striker. If anything the jeers inspired the former Evertonian who crashed home a wonderful drive on the half hour following an exchange with Nani. Chelsea’s static defence can take the blame for failing to close down United’s talisman but Rooney’s fifth goal in as many games said much about the forward’s increasing confidence.
Still, minutes before the break United could thank Edwin van der Sar for a wonderful double-save, stopping first Lampard’s free-kick and then Branislav Ivanovic’s goalbound effort before clawing away the danger. At 40-years-young United will deeply miss the Dutch legend when he retires in the summer.
Chelsea’s response to United’s first half dominance was as speedy as it was aggressive. Quicker to the ball, sharper in the tackle, more incisive in the pass, the Londoners turned the match around within nine minutes of the restart. Ivanovic flicked on Michael Essien’s cross for defender Luiz to fire past Van der Sar.
The change reflected both Chelsea’s greater drive and United’s inner-capitulation.
Yet, even as United’s midfield became over-run the match could not have turned without Atkinson’s intervention. First, Atkinson failed to spot Terry’s handball, then the Yorkshire-born official twice failed to show Luiz a second yellow card, first for a crude foul on Hernández and then an even wilder off-the-ball hack at Rooney.
More crucial still, Atkinson then awarded Chelsea a penalty as Zhirkov fell over Smalling static leg with just minutes left on the clock. Smalling can justifiably feel aggrieved at both his opponent’s gamesmanship and the official’s incompetence.
In the grand picture Chelsea fought its way back into the game; in the detail officialdom again cost United at Stamford Bridge.
Time will tell whether United’s visit to Anfield on Sunday comes at the right time or not. Vidic’s late-red card for a second yellow card under the totting up procedure robs Ferguson’s side of its captain. It couldn’t come at a worse time, with Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand still injured.
Yet, there is no better match to focus United’s collective thoughts.
“At the moment we feel pretty down, but we can move on quickly. We have to,” midfielder Carrick told MUTV.
“We’re used to doing that and we’re normally good at that, so hopefully we can bounce back again. We have to get rid of this game, forget about it and move on. It’s obviously a huge game on Sunday and we’ll be ready for that. We have to be.
“That’s the nature of the beast. We move on and we take a lot of positives from tonight and look to put things right that didn’t go well. We’ll be ready.
“It is disappointing, especially after the first half and the way we played. We were in control. Second half we weren’t as quick and decisive in our passing as we were in the first half, but we still felt quite comfortable and I still thought we might score again.”
The Reds didn’t and Ferguson must hope that defeat at Chelsea doesn’t ultimately cost United the title.
Chelsea – 442 – Cech; Ivanovic, David Luiz (Bosingwa 81), Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Malouda (Zhirkov 71); Torres, Anelka (Drogba 61).
United – 442 – Van der Sar; O’Shea, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes (Giggs 70), Nani; Rooney, Hernández (Berbatov 70).
Attendance – 41,825
Man of the Match – Rooney
Possession: Chelsea 53% – 47% United
Attempts: 17 – 12
On Target: 6 – 5
Corners: 10 – 2
Fouls: 11 – 14