Chelsea stripped of its competence

Wayne Rooney (left) celebrates with teammate Ryan Giggs after scoring a goal.-AP Wayne Rooney (left) celebrates with teammate Ryan Giggs after scoring a goal.

Chelsea had not been beaten so heavily by Manchester United since 2002, the year before Roman Abramovich’s takeover. Kevin McCarra reports.

That long-haul voyage to the Club World Cup might as well have been a restorative trip to a health farm. Manchester United left Chelsea looking as if it was they who were jet-lagged. The fuzzy minds were all in the visitors’ skulls. Their club had not been beaten so heavily by these rivals since 2002, the year before Roman Abramovich’s takeover.

The billionaire was shrewd not to come to Old Trafford if the decision was based on misgivings about this element in his portfolio of investments. Conversely, the regulars at this stadium would have felt fulfilled. In addition to savouring the margin of victory, they had watched United dictate the nature of the whole match.

There was barely a spasm of sophistication or purpose from the visitors. By the end, Chelsea had been stripped of their competence.

It was laughably simple, three minutes from full-time, for Dimitar Berbatov to brush himself away from his young marker, Franco di Santo, and fire in Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick.

The afternoon seemed restorative for the United winger. Ronaldo looks on the verge of rediscovering his former self, the one who was irresistible before injury and surgery last summer. There, too, was proof of Chelsea’s helplessness. They were a mere device in the rehabilitation of the Portuguese as a lethal attacker.

Nemanja Vidic (No.15) is ecstatic after scoring the opening goal for Manchester United.-

There was a hint of that, in the 54th minute, when a cross from the left was so devastating that it took his own team-mates by surprise. Nine minutes later, a Ronaldo backheel did the initial harm to Chelsea as it released the full-back Patrice Evra. The Frenchman collected an injury as he crossed and soon had to be replaced, but deeper damage was done to the visitors. The ball grazed the head of Berbatov before Wayne Rooney shot home.

Chelsea have now taken the commonplace total of six points from their last five Premier League fixtures. The summit of the unfulfilled ambition was to keep United at bay.

Didier Drogba was abject but had no prompting to coax the best out of him. Deco, whose form has collapsed, was the obvious candidate for removal at the interval. The side was bereft of flair and Jonny Evans, deputising for the injured Rio Ferdinand, was wholly unruffled.

The United players, in fairness, could not be classed as a higher life form in a first-half largely devoted to industriousness. Park Ji-sung, dedication personified, was in place for an attempt, after an exchange of passes with Ronaldo, that John Terry blocked in the 44th minute. The opener, moments later, still came as a surprise and its origins lay in the befuddlement of the officials.

United were accidentally penalised at a corner-kick for being unacceptably smart. Rooney tapped the ball a yard or so. Ryan Giggs then advanced with an intent to cross from the right. The referee’s assistant, though, raised his flag because he believed that the corner had not been taken at all. Giggs then flighted it conventionally and, following a faint touch from Berbatov, the defender Nemanja Vidic nodded low past Petr Cech.

Any argument that Chelsea’s concentration had been undermined during a puzzling episode is invalidated by the fact that that they have been floundering at set-pieces for a while. The absence of order was resonant since Jose Mourinho, that master of organisation, was watching his former club from the stands. With this degree of woolliness, the trip to Southend for an FA Cup replay will not be free of hazards. United, naturally, will look at all remaining fixtures with relish. Victory over Wigan at home would see Ferguson’s side standing two points behind the leaders Liverpool with a game in hand.

When Chelsea study the league table they may be most conscious of the fact that Aston Villa are a mere point behind them. United followers would not have been tormenting themselves with too much arithmetic.

It will count more that their side was masterful in various respects. There was, for instance, surprise at the inclusion of Giggs in central midfield rather than Michael Carrick, but the veteran used the ball expertly and displayed a deeper reserve of stamina than had been anticipated. United as a whole grew ever stronger as Chelsea’s dejection deepened.

A tight offside call had denied Ronaldo a goal when the substitute Carrick located him.

There was none of the competitiveness that used to be the essence of Chelsea. Apart from any examination of their morale, there should be scrutiny of the system.

The period when the over-lapping full-backs added such zest to displays away from home is long over, but alternative supplies of impetus are scarce, despite Frank Lampard’s effort here.

Chelsea seem a side with too restricted a repertoire. The isolation of forwards, including the substitute Nicolas Anelka, reflected badly on Scolari’s construction of the team. The visitors collected five bookings yet never put up a fight.

THE RESULTS

January 11, 2009: Manchester United 3 (Vidic 45+2, Rooney 63, Berbatov 87) bt Chelsea 0. Half-time: 1-0; Wigan 1 (Figueroa 90+1) bt Tottenham 0. Half-time: 0-0.

January 10: Arsenal 1 (Bendtner 84) bt Bolton 0. Half-time: 0-0; Aston Villa 2 (Davies 19, Carson o.g. 41) bt West Brom 1 (Morrison 49). Half-time: 2-0; Everton 2 (Fellaini 18, Arteta 45+1) bt Hull 0. Half-time: 2-0; Middlesbrough 1 (Alves 45) drew with Sunderland 1 (Jones 82). Half-time: 1-0; Newcastle 2 (Owen 19, Carroll 78) drew with West Ham 2 (Bellamy 29, Cole 55). Half-time: 1-1; Stoke 0 drew with Liverpool 0.

December 30, 2008: Hull 0 lost to Aston Villa 1 (Zayatte o.g. 88). Half-time: 0-0.

December 29: Manchester United 1 (Berbatov 69) bt Middlesbrough 0. Half-time: 0-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009