Rooney's redemption leaves Blues bitter
This season's top-rating mini-series has been Chelsea versus Manchester United. And if August's Community Shield is counted as its pilot then it will finish as a five-parter when the two meet on May 8 on an occasion that may see United wrest back the Premier League crown from Chelsea.
Before that, a plotline with a European twist must be decided on Tuesday. Every episode so far has been filled with tension, sub-plots and dark undercurrents. 'Part Two' of this double episode will see a Chelsea team with a sense of grievance travel to Old Trafford in an attempt to revive their hunt for the prize that has caused so much pain and suffering in their eight-year quest for it.
The series' anti-hero and main man is one Wayne Rooney, who began in August returning from South Africa with a sullied reputation and, like here, was royally booed for his troubles. This episode centred around him once more and, when the telling moment arrived, who else but Rooney could deliver in the key scene?'
Ryan Giggs, seemingly younger than yesterday, had switched from his unfamiliar midfield holding role to revive his days as a flying winger when he was played in by a sprayed Michael Carrick ball to give Rooney the chance to remember this week for something other than being the bete noire of the moral majority.
Rooney celebrated his goal wordlessly but with some enjoyment. Thursday morning will see him take his punishment for the Upton Park affair, but his headlines now have a more positive spin. His was a performance of discipline, flexibility and intelligence, that saw him play as an auxiliary midfielder for some of the match, a withdrawn forward for another section and, in the latter stages, as a left winger detailed with preventing the overlaps of Michael Essien, by now playing as a full-back. He performed all with a quality that had once looked lost to him.
Elsewhere for United, defensive determination, with a touch of class added by the returning Rio Ferdinand, and their taking of the chance to grab that vital away goal, means they are not the team leaving Stamford Bridge in a rage. Martin Atkinson was their target back on March 1 and Chelsea now have a new scapegoat in Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco, a figure who looks set to follow Sweden's Anders Frisk and Norway's Tom Henning Ovrebo into Blue infamy.
Two penalty claims in second-half injury time had the hackles raised after what had been a night of growing rancour, where those noises from the Blue camp came with a frustrated edge. The first saw them denied a clear and present penalty when Patrice Evra clumsily tripped Ramires. The next was less clear cut, and clearly played for by Fernando Torres in an attempt to make an impression on another night of relative anonymity, save for a fine header that had made Edwin Van Sar require his full wingspan to save. It was perhaps a blessing that Didier Drogba, another player whose lack of camera shyness has got him into hot water, was by then cooling his heels on the bench.
After Undiano waved away both, and booked Torres for his troubles as an angry Rio Ferdinand complained of a lack of sportsmanship, Chelsea had their figure of hate, and he left the field to choruses of "cheat, cheat, cheat" as well as some other words now associated with the foul mouth of young Master Rooney. Manchester United themselves felt their own sense of grievance had gone some way to being redressed. Their first win here since April 2002 may have a look of being incomplete if lines are fluffed at Old Trafford, but Sir Alex Ferguson followed Rio Ferdinand in suggesting their luck with the Ramires decision was just desserts for a long run of disappointment and perceived injustice at the Bridge.
Ferguson said that he'd been told that Chelsea's first claim was just, but offered little in the way of sympathy. "If it was then it's the first decision we've had in seven years here so I don't feel guilty about that," he said with a glinting smile. But he barely concealed his disdain for Torres when dismissing the second, saying: "He dived, he got booked for it so it wasn't a penalty claim."
The two managers had largely agreed about that second flashpoint. "I don't want to speak about the second, the first was very clear," said Carlo Ancelotti. "The second was not a penalty." This followed an opinion on Undiano that bore some resemblance to Ferguson's infamous views on the fairness of Atkinson's decisions here five weeks ago. It was more measured in its delivery - Ancelotti's opinions are always offered with far less spite that his United counterpart - but the message was rather similar.
"It was clear," was Ancelotti's interpretation of the Ramires-Evra storyline. "Everyone knows it was clear. A referee needs personality and courage to make this decision in the last minute. Not all referees have these skills."
Ancelotti then pulled back from the precipice by associating others with the perceived mistake. "The linesman and the assistant linesman were in the right position," he added. The Italian knew his team had not done enough to win this match but still felt that "we didn't deserve to lose". The aim of next Tuesday's instalment is clear now. "We have to change the result at Old Trafford," was a simplistic response to questions about his approach in six days time.
Lose then, or even draw, and Chelsea's season will turn into a procession towards Ancelotti's summer departure and leave Manchester United in a hunt for a Treble. That is a storyline Ferguson will not countenance talk of just yet. "In every competition we do our best, even if we are not going to win it," he said of his game-by-game approach to the rest of the season. "We have to win the game, that's the attitude of Manchester United; we have to do that."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs. From overlapping full-back at Upton Park to midfield battler at Stamford Bridge, Giggs now has even more versatility to add to his legion of qualities. The physical battle in the engine room held no fear for him and he reminded of his creative abilities with his assist for Rooney's goal. Ninety minutes were completed to throw off talk of ailing legs. This was a very similar display to one he delivered against the same opponents in January 2009 at Old Trafford.
CHELSEA VERDICT: They were carved open for Rooney's goal, and for a couple of half-chances for Javier Hernandez. The midfield power they displayed in their second half effort during their league encounter here did not materialise, while Fernando Torres has gone ten hours without a goal. He perked up once Drogba was removed from proceedings but Old Trafford provides him with something approaching a last chance to prove he is not the dud signing of the season.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Like so often this season, success was built on grit and organisation and the taking of chances when presented. Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic's reunion helped them, and the running of Ji Sung Park won praise from their manager. Antonio Valencia reprised Ryan Giggs' reversion from winger to full-back, to stand in for Rafael, whose season may be over after a knee injury. The Ecuadorian embodied an all-hands-to-the-pump approach which got its reward.