Chelsea rises to the occasion

Michael Ballack of Chelsea is jubilant after scoring the second goal against Manchester United.-AP

The title now comes down to whether United, comforted only by a superior goal difference, can extract a better set of results from West Ham and Wigan than Chelsea can inflict upon Newcastle and Bolton Wanderers. By Duncan Castles.

First, let us applaud Chelsea. Victory essential, their long, proud unbeaten home record on the line against a team almost every critic considers superior, and deprived of one of their driving forces by the death of his mother, this was a team who truly rose to the occasion.

Better from the first minutes, Chelsea spent much of the second half trying to re-establish an advantage ceded to the best defensive unit in the country by a self-inflicted error, their lead so hard won by Michael Ballack's 45th-minute header washed away by an errant Ricardo Carvalho back-pass. Four minutes from time Ballack restored it - as cool a converter of a correctly awarded penalty as you would expect from Germany's captain.

The title now comes down to whether United, comforted only by a superior goal difference, can extract a better set of results from West Ham and Wigan than Chelsea can inflict upon Newcastle and Bolton Wanderers. Now, let us query United. For Ferguson this was a selection gamble gone horribly wrong.

This was a championship decider in which both teams started understrength. Chelsea donned black armbands in memory of Frank Lampard's mother Pat, who was, as John Terry wrote in his programme notes, `simply a wonderful woman'. Lampard, understandably, remained at home with his father.

The game was captivating from the outset. After eight minutes, Nemanja Vidic fell victim to a knee to his chin. If Didier Drogba's intervention was accidental, it only added to the uncertainty of an already unstable United rearguard. As Drogba claimed possession of every aerial ball that fell his way, the disease spread gradually across United's other markers.

Wes Brown had already flummoxed his own goalkeeper with an imprecise back header that Joe Cole gathered for Michael Essien to lob marginally over.

In full rampaging bison form, Essien charged through for a strike that Edwin van der Sar just matched and a pair of clever crosses that found no takers. Salomon Kalou writhed into the area for a futile penalty claim. Seemingly halted by a stretched Michael Carrick tackle, the ball bounced back to Cole for a spinning volley against a post.

If united managed to retain possession for more than 60 first-half seconds, they did it only once. They were, however, a threat on the counter. Again and again, Nani went running in the Chelsea half, ball at feet, options all around him. With his best opportunity, the Portuguese backpedalled Terry to the edge of his own area then shot wildly over, an unmarked Wayne Rooney screaming incandescently alongside. Other breaks were lost to tackles or poor passes and neutrals wondered what the score might have been had Ronaldo started.

As Drogba ran into Mikael Silvestre to prostrate himself in search of a penalty, then petulantly slapped Darren Fletcher, United seemed to be riding out the storm. Appearances, though, were deceptive. As the first half entered stoppage time Drogba was again allowed the room to pivot on the edge of the area and cross. Arriving from the far post, an unchecked Ballack continued diagonally onwards and headed the delivery flush across the 'keeper. Terry summoned a Chelsea shirt from the bench - printed on its back `Pat Lampard RIP'. Bloody-minded enough to add neither Ronaldo nor Tevez at the interval, Ferguson then benefited from an extraordinary lapse of concentration from Chelsea's best defender. From a freekick at the halfway line Paulo Ferreira touched square to Carvalho. Without looking, he clipped the ball back towards Petr Cech, had it intercepted by Rooney, and watched impotently as the striker accelerated on and finished off the inside of an upright.

Outrageous fortune dissatisfied with that turn of events, she struck Rooney down with a hip injury. Belatedly, Ronaldo entered the field, soon to be faced by Nicolas Anelka as Chelsea switched formation to 4- 4-2, wingers playing so far up it was frequently a 4-2-4.

Drogba fired a free-kick at a top corner to be denied by Van der Sar. So was Cole as he ill-advisedly left his boot in on the 'keeper for a second time in the match. Andriy Shevchenko was thrown into the mi unusually holding to the left-wing beat he had been asked to run - and Drogba unsuccessfully petitioned for a penalty after heading a long ball down off Brown's arm. The next time Chelsea claimed one, Alan Wiley relented.

ESSIEN, NOW AT RIGHT-BACK, attacked his wing and centred well. Carrick attempted to block and caught the ball with a tucked-in left arm - enough for an astute linesman to flag for a spot-kick. Where Ballack and Drogba had argued over the taking of free-kicks, there was no disputing that this was the German's.

With not a trace of doubt, he jogged forward, waited for Van der Sar to flex his knees and dispatched the ball to the opposite corner. Remarkably, it was the first penalty United had conceded in the Premier League this season.

In the last frantic minutes of a coruscating game Carrick might have had a penalty while Ronaldo and Fletcher had net bound efforts cleared by Ashley Cole and Shevchenko. The points, though, were Chelsea's. The title there to be claimed by them, United must do it all over again.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008 THE RESULTS

April 27: Portsmouth 0 lost to Blackburn 1 (Roque Santa Cruz 74). Half-time: 0-0; Everton 2 (Phil Neville 56, Joseph Yobo 84) drew with Aston Villa 2 (Gabriel Agbonlahor 80, John Carew 86). Half-time: 0-0.

April 27: Chelsea 2 (Michael Ballack 45 & pen- 86) bt Manchester United 1 (Wayne Rooney 57). Half-time: 1-0; Manchester City 2 (Stephen Ireland 10, Benjani Mwaruwari 21) lost to Fulham 3 (Diomansy Kamara 70 & 90, Danny Murphy 79). Half-time: 2-0; Sunderland 3 (Danny Higginbotham 6, Michael Chopra 45, Emanuel Pogatetz o.g. 90) bt Middlesbrough 2 (Tuncay Sanli 4, Afonso Alves 73). Half-time: 2-1; Tottenham 1 (Steed Malbranque 52) drew with Bolton 1 (Stelios Giannakopoulos 46). Half-time: 0-0; West Ham 2 (Mark Noble 10, Dean Ashton 23) drew with Newcastle 2 (Obafemi Martins 42, Geremi 45). Half-time: 2-2; Wigan 0 drew with Reading 0; Birmingham 2 (Mikael Forssell 34, Sebastian Larsson 55) drew with Liverpool 2 (Peter Crouch 63, Yossi Benayoun 76). Half-time: 1-0.

* * * The award goes to Ronaldo again

Cristiano Ronaldo with the PFA Player of the Year Trophy.-AP

Cristiano Ronaldo has been named Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year for the second successive season after another outstanding campaign in which he has scored 38 goals in all competitions for Manchester United, the defending Premier League champions.

The 23-year-old Ronaldo beat off competition from Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Cesc Fábregas, Emmanuel Adebayor and David James.

Arsenal’s midfielder Fábregas was named Young Player of the Year, an award which Ronaldo also won in 2007, at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel. Ronaldo did not attend the event in person as he was preparing for Champions League game against Barcelona but was shown on screen accepting his trophy from United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, at the club’s Carrington training ground.

“I feel very happy,” he said. “When you work all season to play good, to do something for the team, to do your contribution for the team and then at the end of the season the PFA give you this award, it is a great moment, it is an honour, a pleasure. It is a great motivation to carry on like that, to work more and get better.”

Ronaldo, who joined United in a £12.24m move from Sporting Lisbon in 2003 and who also came third in the FIFA World Player of the Year poll, added: “I am sure I am a better player than four or five years ago. It is my ambition to learn more and play better and I think I am in the right place.”

He said his own vote for the top award had gone to the Arsenal striker Adebayor, who has scored 27 goals this season.

In the young player poll Fábregas finished ahead of Ronaldo. Torres, Micah Richards, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young had been the other nominees. “I’m very proud. It’s a very prestigious trophy,” said the midfielder. “Football is a collective game and you prefer to win trophies with team-mates but it’s always nice to have this type of award. I dedicate it to my team-mates because without them I would not have won.”

Chelsea’s push for a Premier League and Champions League double was not recognised in the PFA’s top team of the year, with none of their players featuring. United had three representatives in Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic while Fábregas, Adebayor, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy featured for Arsenal. Liverpool’s Gerrard and Torres were included, as was the Portsmouth and England goalkeeper James and Aston Villa’s midfielder Young.

The 72-year-old former England and Blackpool full-back Jimmy Armfield, still involved in football as a broadcaster, received the Merit award for his services to the game.

Andy Hampson/©Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008