While Manchester City spent, Chelsea regressed and Arsenal’s bright future finally threatened to show up, Manchester United were winning this Premier League title race without fanfare. In a rebuilding phase themselves, they relied on old organisational wisdom and defensive strength to exploit the weaknesses of their pursuers.
Sir Alex Ferguson has won championships with spectacular attacking football. He was winning this one without the same artistry in midfield and with Wayne Rooney becalmed. All the while his team remained unbeaten there was a sense of unstoppability about the club’s quest for a 19th title — one more than Liverpool, whom United face at Anfield on Sunday.
The Inexorables are no more. United have been beaten twice in four league games but enter familiar territory. To run away with the prize is no longer a hope. Now they must hold what they have. The invincibility went with a 2-1 loss at Wolves. Then the Chelsea hoodoo struck again. It would be absurd to suggest Ferguson’s side go looking for fresh motivation around this time but grievances will again drive them on.
United started this contest brightly but were subjugated by Chelsea in the second half. The penalty awarded to Yuri Zhirkov after he had tripped over Chris Smalling’s leg was soft: a classic case of an attacking player looking for a limb to trip over. David Luiz, who scored a whipcrack equaliser, ought to have been dismissed for felling Rooney with his thigh: his third bookable offence, even if Martin Atkinson, the referee, chose not to count them that way.
From the other side of the divide Chelsea’s followers called out that Rooney was lucky to be on the field in the first place, in the light of events at Wigan on Saturday, when he elbowed James McCarthy in the head.
Nemanja Vidic, though, can have no complaints about his dismissal for a second transgression, three minutes into added time. Those moral wrangles can swing back and forth. But the reality is that United will now face Liverpool without their first-choice centre-halves: Vidic, who is suspended, and the injured Rio Ferdinand.
So adversity looms for Ferguson’s team, just as life was running smooth.
They like it that way. Now they have something to kick against. With 10 games left the siege begins, with Rooney finding his range again. “We defended badly for the first goal, but the penalty-kick is so soft, dear me,” Ferguson said. “We played really well and we didn’t deserve that. Three years in a row here decisions have changed the game.”
Ferguson’s decision to retain a starting line-up for the first time in 165 matches was above all a statement of faith in Javier Hernández, who even a Top Gear presenter could recognise as a highly motivated Mexican.
To keep Dimitar Berbatov on the bench was an affirmation of Hernández’s growing stature at Old Trafford. Not since the Premier League game against West Ham on 3 May 2008, which followed a midweek Champions League tie with Barcelona, had Ferguson pinned the same 11 names to a board.
Thus was delivered a painful blow to Berbatov’s seniority in a department where Rooney had been living off his reputation before his spectacular bicycle kick in the Manchester derby and a fierce 29th-minute drive here helped restore his status as a menace around the goal. Even Chelsea’s fans jeered the airgun-wielding Ashley Cole with shouts of “shoot, shoot” but it was Rooney who fired first, beating Petr Cech minutes after exposing himself to more disciplinary peril when running into Ramires in front of the referee.
This was United’s chance to knock the holders out of the race. Hernández, who scored twice against Wigan, was here on merit, at a ground where Ferguson’s teams have tended to go home empty-handed. The life-loving, God-fearing Chicharito teamed up with the irascible, elbow-throwing Rooney, who started in a familiar grump, howling at the referee when a push went unpunished and radiating the usual displeasure.
Hernández’s mobility, lateral running and infectious enthusiasm are his best assets, along with a gift for subtle finishing. If he has a fault, 25 appearances into his United career, it is that his final release from promising positions is sometimes hurried and/or imprecise. This will be coached out of him. His movement across the line allowed Rooney to start his own darts from deeper. The piercing Rooney run from just beyond the halfway line has been a rarity in this campaign. Here, though, he set off with some of his old locomotion.
Rooney, generally a team player, drew a yelp of annoyance from Gary Neville, in the stands, when Nani slipped the ball to him on Chelsea’s right and Rooney advanced on goal in an arc but tried a shot from an acute angle rather than cutting it back for Hernández, who had pulled off his defender into space. Territorial selfishness by the older player. Soon Hernández was replaced by Berbatov, with Ryan Giggs trotting on for Paul Scholes on the eve of the 20th anniversary of his United debut.
Here come the veterans, the experts in campaigning. The knowledge runs deep. But the easy days are over.