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Apr 26, 2008

Questions must be asked of Fergie

Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United

Just for once, the questions need to be asked of Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson rather than his Chelsea counterpart Avram Grant.

On a day when the Premier League title race could have been put to bed once and for all, the most respected coach in the history of the English game committed the sort of error that would lead to calls for a lesser man to be sacked. Make no mistake, the finger of blame for this potentially devastating defeat should be pointed at United's legendary manager.

There was a collective gasp around the Stamford Bridge press room when the team sheets were digested, with the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Paul Scholes a surprise on a day when so much was at stake.

Ferguson gave a hint that he was preparing for a defeat in his pre-match television interview by suggesting his side's superior goal difference could make all the difference in the final analysis, but the sparkling team who have long been tipped to win this league presented their chief rivals with an open goal before a ball had been kicked.

United would hardly relish the idea of heading to a crumbling pitch at Wigan in two weeks time needing a win to claim their tenth Premier League title, but the selection he made for this game gave Chelsea all the encouragement they needed to defy the doubters and reclaim the Premier League crown wrestled from their grasp last May.

With Chelsea fastest out of the blocks, the nervous nature of United's defending early on suggested the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were a little wary of the task they had been saddled with by their manager and when they latter of that duo was stretchered off with concussion after he clashed with Didier Drogba after just 13 minutes, their self-inflicted troubles merely multiplied.

As Chelsea poured forward, the home side were sensing blood and the opener so nearly arrived when Cole crashed a shot against the crossbar with Edwin van der Sar well beaten.

The goal they threatened for so long finally arrived as Drogba floated a cross into the path of Michael Ballack and his header was guided past Van der Sar with all too much ease. The agitation on the United bench in front of us in the press box was all too evident as they fell behind, while Avram Grant and his Chelsea staff were celebrating as if they had won the league itself.

The quality of the United starting eleven was the major talking point as the growing number of journalists who indulge in a couple of large glasses of red wine mid-way through their working day gathered for a summit and even without some of their star names, the questions had to be asked of the players Fergie had sent into battle for this mammoth match.

Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Nani are all paid big money by United to play in games of this stature, yet their first half display was not that of players who belonged at this level, so it needed some of the famed Ferguson's hairdryer treatment to raise his troops for the second half.

Whatever he said in the dressing room adjacent to the wine swilling hacks, it seemed to work as United emerged for the second half with renewed energy and once Wayne Rooney equalised after Ricardo Carvalho's howling error with 57 minutes on the clock, it seemed as if Ferguson was going to get away with his team selection.

Then the title race was blown wide open again as the ineffective Michael Carrick handled in the box five minutes from time and Ballack kept a cool head to blast home the goal that leaves United with no more wiggle room.

'There is no way I could have played the same eleven that started at Barcelona on Wednesday night,' argued a defensive United boss. 'The travel takes something out of you and we have to keep one eye on the return game this coming Tuesday. It's not too far away don't forget. I have spoken all year about the quality of the squad I have here and they had to respond when we needed them.

'A penalty decision has cost us in the end, but our goal difference has always been a massive plus for us. We came here with a team good enough to get a proper result, but we move on now.'

The celebrations around Stamford Bridge suggested the Chelsea fans believe a title party will be on the agenda when the final day of this Premier League season is over, but Avram Grant is always a good man to dose the flames of joy and he did just that with his latest dour press conference.

'We did what we needed to do,' said Grant, again displaying all the personality of a stale jelly bean. 'We won the game against Manchester United and it puts them under pressure. I'm very proud with what we are doing this season. We have now won big games against Arsenal and United, which shows great character. We also showed we can play good football despite what everyone says.

'I have to believe United will crack, or else there is no point in being in this game. It will not be easy for them to win the two games they have left when all the pressure is on their shoulders.'

It's a good job that Avram Grant's team have shown a brighter side than their depressing manager in the last few weeks, yet the Israeli bore could just end up as a Premier League title winner after this momentous victory.

Could it be that Alex Ferguson is contemplating finishing what looked set to be great season without a trophy by the end of next weekend? Should such a shocking scenario become reality, United's celebrated boss will only have himself to blame.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Michael Ballack
Goals are all that matter in games of this magnitude and Ballack was so cool with the two chances that came his way. His late penalty was a touch of class.

WHERE'S ROMAN? Speculation was rife in the press room that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has fallen out of love with his Stamford Bridge play thing and his absence from this massive clash did little to dose those rumours.

INSIDER OPINION: The Premier League need to look at their fixture list and ensure a high profile game like this is not scheduled for the week of a major Champions League game. Not only does the schedule affect the quality of their league, it also harms the hopes of English teams in Europe.

HANDBAG BOYS: Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack played out something of a pathetic squabble and they argued over who would take a second half free-kick. Drogba often strikes you as the kind of guy you need to suck up to in a bid to avoid him throwing a tantrum.

FOOD WATCH: Another early kick-off demanded the full English breakfast and Chelsea delivered in style to a packed press room.

VERDICT: If momentum counts for anything in this title race, then Chelsea are on course for the most improbable of triumphs. United dare not do anything but beat West Ham and Wigan in their final two games.

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