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Feb 5, 2012

Thrilling comeback papers over cracks

Whatever the method, and whomever Andre Villas-Boas could choose to blame, the blowing of a three-goal lead against Manchester United is hardly likely to calm the waters of a troubled first season as Chelsea manager. That this wouldn't have happened to Jose Mourinho, last seen making eyes in Roman Abramovich's general direction, is an opinion bound to be offered by more than just this organ.

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Chelsea might even have won the game late on, but David de Gea made up for earlier pratfalls with two outstanding saves, and a disconsolate group of Blues supporters left the ground in anger. Meanwhile, Manchester United will wonder how they found themselves at such a disadvantage having been the more threatening team for much of the first half. Defensive lapses were the answer to that question, know-how and experience were the reply to the issue of getting back into the match.

While Villas-Boas' substitution of the outstanding Daniel Sturridge for Oriol Romeu looked odd at the time, Sir Alex Ferguson's introduction of Javier Hernandez and Paul Scholes turned the game just after referee Howard Webb had awarded a first penalty. A softer award soon followed for Rooney to convert again, and eventually Hernandez could nod in a Ryan Giggs cross as United pushed on for an inevitable equaliser.

United's record now stretches beyond ten years without a league win at Stamford Bridge, a day when their goals were scored by Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Scholes. Scholes' return from brief retirement has cheered some, but others see it as a mark of desperation at a club handcuffed by a Glazer debt slowly ebbing away their primacy.

There have been 12 months of seismic defeats: to Manchester City in the FA Cup, Barcelona in the Champions League final, the shame of City winning 6-1 at Old Trafford, snowdrift in Basel and then the battle of bad blood at Anfield last week. Defeat in this fixture would not have been quite as painful, though a draw may not be enough in the light of City gaining a two-point lead this weekend. However, a battling comeback is part of United lore, and spirits were high at the end. And Scholes, ever in possession and prompting once he was introduced, had shown what he can still offer.

Papering over the cracks has been the key facet of latter-day Ferguson at United, and this comeback masked that here was a weakened Chelsea team for the taking and that his team, for all their late surge, left themselves with too much to do. The headlines will centre on the display of referee Howard Webb, and the award of two penalties to Manchester United that allowed them a passage into a game that Chelsea had to see out, and failed to do.

"It was almost normal service for them," said a generous Villas-Boas of United. "They showed great desire and great ambition to draw coming back from 3-0 down." Criticism of Webb was soon to follow for the award of a second penalty, where Branislav Ivanovic's clash with Welbeck looked to have been awarded the wrong way. The first, for Sturridge's baulking of Patrice Evra, was alright by AVB, the second "too soft to be true".

"In top games, we expect top refs, and it hasn't been happening for us. In the end, the decision shifted the running of the game. They have had a direct influence on the result. Is the ref compensating for something else?" The criticism stopped short of the vehemence that saw Ferguson banned for questioning how 'fair' a referee Martin Atkinson was after last season's corresponding fixture. Villas-Boas drew the venom by admitting he could offer "no excuses", though by then, he already had.

A Chelsea line-up without John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba would once have been indigestible especially in a Champions League race where four into one will not go. Newcastle's defeat of Aston Villa had increased the pressure on Villas-Boas achieving his minimum target for the season, when certain quarters suggest he will be sacked if he does not win the Champions League outright. A display of both the good and bad of the new Chelsea saw crucial ground squandered when it was tight in their grasp.

In Terry's stead was Gary Cahill, a lesser-spotted January signing who has cut a frustrated figure as he has waited for his big chance. Michael Essien's frustrations have centred around a repeated propensity for serious injury, but his first start of the season was granted. Cahill showed promise as an organiser until the equaliser, though Essien, while energetic, is not yet the force of old just yet.

Even sat in the stands, Terry remained to the forefront. Rio Ferdinand was barracked for his public backing of brother Anton in the legal affair which led to the "one England captain" losing that post. Manchester United fans replied with the Depeche Mode song they have repurposed to deride Luis Suarez. It was unedifying at best, and another signal that the 2011-12 season will not be remembered fondly for a bonhomie of spirit. Football's response to the serious social problem of racism has been that of the spoiled child. It was lucky that an outstanding match after half-time made most forget the jibes and be instead captured by a Premier League classic.

Chelsea's opening goal was an exposure of the type of pitiful United defending that has handed victory to Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool of late. Evra was carved open by Sturridge, De Gea hacked helplessly, and Jonny Evans could only divert the ball into his own net. It was a goal with a taste of sourest Basel thrown in. Defensive weakness looks the issue that will cost United the title; David De Gea's nerves had been apparent from the moment he botched a punch from a Chelsea corner in the seventh minute.

A first half in which United had edged the balance of play had been thrown away by laxness, and the pattern would be repeated in the very first minute of the second half when Evra again lost his flank and Torres' cross dipped over for Juan Mata to smash home. It was a wonderfully executed strike that Villas-Boas must hope is emblematic of his new Chelsea. Mata soon turned supplier as his free-kick found David Luiz's tousled mane to nod in off the harangued and harrassed Ferdinand. But the lead was not to last, and while Chelsea had a scapegoat, their manager knew that offering the head of Howard Webb would not be enough to solve his mounting problems.

"Three-nil up is an excellent result," admitted Villas-Boas as a bout of self-awareness began. "Maybe we lost control of the game today. It was noticeable, the disappointment of our fans. And they are right. It's a pity we couldn't give them the satisfaction they deserved."

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs: He saves his best for Chelsea, it seems, as the still-flying sometime winger put in a shift of genuine energy and creativity. Twenty seasons as a first-team United player looks like being further added to by some measure; Giggs' hard running to defy old legs was a symbol of why the comeback is still a Manchester United keynote.

CHELSEA VERDICT: They took their chances well, and Juan Mata was the arch-creator and the match's best player until United turned the screw but Chelsea fans are beginning to get frustrated with a poor home record that would have been unthinkable under previous regimes. Ascendancy and momentum were surrendered all too easily.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They were the brighter in the first period, but then looked dead and buried. Ferguson's substitutions saved them when it looked as if Chelsea would surge further clear. Unlike the Manchester City thrashing, tactical discipline was kept, and eventually paid off.

EYE OF THE STORM: If you want to catch up with John Terry when he is at the centre of a media storm, then the Chelsea press room is often the place to find England's twice-deposed captain. Looking chipper in a club tracksuit, 'JT' was to be found offering the thumbs-up to well-wishers, and perhaps relishing the thought that it was arch-nemesis Rio Ferdinand who would be in the firing line on this occasion.

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