Blockbuster battle

Alex Dunn picks the bones out of a six-goal thriller at Stamford Bridge that said plenty about both Chelsea and Manchester United, while reflecting on further player abuse that marred proceedings in West London.

Alex Dunn picks the bones out of a thriller at Stamford Bridge that said plenty about Chelsea and Man United.

In terms of pure sporting excellence Sunday's duel at Stamford Bridge was as imperfect as a supermodel with a pimple but as a spectacle it was Twiggy shot by David Bailey for the luxurious pages of Vogue. There was nothing model-like about the soft underbellies possessed by both Chelsea and Manchester United, which were made to look like sagging guts at times. With neither side able to call upon their respective defensive talismans two haphazard back fours looked rudderless throughout. For those that see the game as an academic subject, who are never happier than when sparring over the evolution of the 'fake nine' in the modern era, what unfolded in West London would have been as ugly as it was fascinating. For the rest of us it was pure unadulterated entertainment. Art house has its place but at times a bucket of popcorn and a blockbuster will do just fine. For Chelsea it was 90 minutes that perfectly captured the quandary at the heart of a club that presently knows not whether it is Arthur or Martha. Here is a club that is suffering an identity crisis, uncertain whether to look backwards or forwards and as a consequence is perpetually caught in the peripheral space in between. Andre Villas-Boas is the story's author but it is Roman Abramovich who will have final copy approval. Circumstances dictated that the old guard were conspicuous by their absence as John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba were all given the weekend off. On paper it was a crisis but there was a sense Villas-Boas may have revelled in presenting his vision for a future Chelsea without the baggage of a scowling face or two sat behind him on the substitutes' bench. There was nothing to lose and by the 50 minute mark it appeared as though the beleaguered Portuguese had won not just three points but something more pertinent than that; vindication that his ideas are not built on shifting sands. It would be hyperbolic to suggest in any way Chelsea had ripped United apart by this point, lest not forget two of their three goals had the football gods shining down on them, but there was a vitality to much of their attacking play. Daniel Sturridge, criminally substituted ahead of the ineffective and seemingly disinterred Florent Malouda, posed a persistent threat for Patrice Evra, whose form this season must be of real concern to Sir Alex Ferguson, to further strengthen his claims for a spot in England's Euro 2012 squad, if not a starting place down the right.

Identity crisis

While Sturridge played with the vivacious abandon of youth Fernando Torres continues to carry the gauche look of a man who would be too shy to even introduce himself to confidence let alone embrace it when a chance comes his way. At times he threatened to kick start into life, the odd smart touch here and there, a dreamlike cross that painted Juan Mata's masterpiece of a volley, but a tortured soul he remains. The manner in which he dawdled when presented with a late chance was a clear confidence issue and can be rectified, perhaps, but more worrying was the sight of him losing a second half footrace with a laboured Rio Ferdinand, who at 33 and with a bad back is far from the athlete he once was. There was no lack of willing from the Spaniard but the fact remains the first thing he's hit sweetly this season is Jonny Evans' backside, with a fourth booking he earned as a consequence one more than his goal total. Regardless of your position on Villas-Boas there is no doubt Chelsea are in a transitional period, as are Manchester United, but the difference is Ferguson will not tolerate anything less than top spot even when the sum of his parts looks considerably less than the collective whole. Villas Boas does not have the authority to make such demands and it shows. At present Chelsea have the look of first term university friends; all perfectly fine as individuals but there is an inevitability that a mismatch of personalities brought together in peculiar circumstances will over time pair off with more likeminded folk. The genius of Ferguson, at 70, is an ability to handle the modern day footballer as well as he does those of the old school variety. He claims United's kids keep him young but Villas-Boas would learn more by looking at how he's managed the careers of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, both of whom made telling contributions on Sunday at a combined age of 75.
Old and new
It's said some of Chelsea's senior players don't respect a man who at 34 is months not years older than the likes of Lampard and Drogba and has failed to cultivate the bonds that still bind Jose Mourinho with many of his former charges. At times it looks as though he's tried to crack a nut with a sledgehammer since taking over the Chelsea reins from Carlo Ancelotti, choosing to go head-to-head with the most popular kids in the class rather than embracing the old saying about the proximity in which you need to keep friends in relation to enemies. He may yet pay the price with his job. Ferguson claimed post-match that this was two points dropped but given Chelsea have won 50 of the last 53 Premier League matches they have led at half-time he will not take the most stirring of comebacks lightly. His protestations that this is no less a side than previous incarnations ring hollow but what is equal to bygone teams is an unquenchable thirst for battle in adversity. Those with a predilection for all things anti-United will claim it was Howard Webb that proved to be the catalyst for the best great escape since Steve McQueen was doing time in a cooler with just a baseball mitt and ball for company. It was, though, the performance of Wayne Rooney that will delight not just Ferguson, but Fabio Capello. The need for leaders on the international scene has been brought into sharp focus this weekend more than ever, so the sight of Rooney grabbing by the scruff of the neck a game that in normal circumstances would have drawn a flat line on a heart monitor will thrill the Italian. Rooney has been accused of being profligate in his final ball but even when his execution is off there is invariably bravery in his choice of pass. Whether either of his penalties were legitimately awarded has been covered exhaustively elsewhere but what is not up for debate is that his presence in any game offers a beacon of hope. His naysayers continue to express doubts but had Rooney not been playing on Sunday, Villas-Boas would have woken this morning with a beaming smile rather than harbouring a lingering regret over the one that got away.It would be pleasant then to finish on a positive note for England after a game that celebrated all that is great about the Premier League, but as has all too often been the case this season the action was played out against a backdrop of tribalism that leaves a lingering aftertaste of bile that is difficult to dislodge. Support these days tends to be at it most unwavering when placed in the context of opposition and as Ferdinand found out on Sunday, having the temerity to be related to a player who is the alleged victim of racist abuse is a crime in itself.
Ugly truths
Chelsea's players needed support most in the immediate aftermath of Javier Hernandez's equaliser but instead the television cameras panned to congested exits. There will be those amongst the departing masses that will have shouted themselves hoarse in berating Ferdinand. It seems the complexities of everyday existence, the nuances of what it is to make choices based on cognitive reasoning, are rendered obsolete by this archaic interpretation of what it is to "support" your team. Shades of grey are never considered in arguments invariably reduced to black and white, depressingly literally in recent cases, red or blue. Football is in danger of becoming a warped parallel version of X-Factor with some sections of a crowd, once knowledgeable, now mere nodding dogs to the whims of the football's grand panel. Kenny Dalglish and co cast as Simon Cowell in whipping the live studio audience into a frenzy after labelling the jeers of a mentally unstable warbler from Morecambe as 'banter'. It's up to managers to lead from the front in setting a responsible example and credit must go to Villas-Boas for his comments in which he condemned Chelsea's fans for booing Ferdinand on Sunday. All the good work of numerous anti-racism campaigns means nothing if players are persecuted for speaking up against discrimination. The idea that you pay your money so can say whatever you want belongs in the dark ages and is an absolute nonsense. You've paid to see a Premier League football match not attend a Hitler Youth rally. That's not to say those that booed Evra, or either Ferdinand brother, or Tom Adeyemi at Oldham are racist but rather caught up in a pervading atmosphere of hate that in the cold light of day is puerile, juvenile and frankly farcical. Bill Shankly couldn't have been more wrong when he said 'Football's not a matter of life and death...it's more important than that'. It's nothing of the sort. It's a game.

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