Was there contact in the box? Did Smalling get the ball or the player? Well by answering these two questions you should come to the conclusion that ultimately despite the harshness of the decision it was a penalty and it was perhaps one of the few decisions that Atkinson got right on the night.
If it was up to me on a personal basis, I would’ve yellow-carded Zhirkov for going down too easily and looking for it, but objectively with the laws as they stand, an attacker who goes down after a movement by a defender towards him and not the ball will result in a foul and as Smalling made a movement towards Zhirkov, it was only going to end one way.
Smalling will learn from his mistakes and whilst yesterday was a rude awakening after a faultless rise to the first team since he joined, no one can argue he looked out his depth last night even if he was upstaged by the other phenomenal new defensive talent on the pitch.
2. Patrice Evra (Game of Two Halves)
Evra’s First Half Statistics: 35/42 Successful Passes, 1 Interception, 1 Tackle ( Evra Second Half Statistics: (12/15 Successful Passes, 1 Tackle)
Now many will no doubt point to the loss of the midfield battle as the prime factor behind United’s collapse in the second half but these stats tell a story of their own.
In the first half it was the Nani & Evra show on the left flank, aided by the movement of Rooney and Hernandez drifting to the left and wreaking havoc against the defensively indisciplined Anelka and the tad cumbersome Ivanovic. Evra was receiving an awful lot of the ball and the aforementioned stats just mention the times he passed the ball, he was actually dribbling and touching the ball quite a fair bit more.
As expected his final delivery wasn’t quite up to it but nonetheless his mere presence on the overlap and his ability to take on men was telling and no doubt benefited Nani who could cut in with the full knowledge there was an option on the outside if he should wish to take it. So everything seemed to be hunky-dory in the first half and Evra was putting in a stunning performance, which begs the question what on earth led to him producing such dire stats in the second half?
Well one possible explanation and perhaps the most logical is that once we scored we sat back on the lead and prevented our full backs from getting forward with their usual gusto, another is that such was Chelsea’s rage at going a goal down that through sheer will of force they pinned us back and our midfield were unable to feed our full backs with the same frequency we had in the first half, as is so often the case, the truth perhaps lies somewhere in the middle. We dropped off a tad but once it had been realised that this was an error, Chelsea were relentless and the momentum knocked the stuffing out of United’s attacking endeavours.
3. Midfield Battle
Manchester United Midfield Stats: Carrick (50/61 Successful Passes, 5 Interceptions, 2/5 Tackles made, 1 Clearance) Scholes (52/57 Successful Passes, 3 Interceptions, 1/2 Tackles made) Fletcher (28/43 Successful Passes, 1 Interceptions, 5/10 Tackles made, 1 Clearance)
Chelsea Midfield Stats: Essien (50/54 Successful Passes, 3 Interceptions, 1/2 Tackles) Lampard (43/53 Successful Passes, 3 Interceptions, 2/3 Tackles, 1 Clearance) Ramires (34/43 Successful Passes, 4 Interceptions, 6/9 Tackles, 2 Clearances)
A very even Midfield Battle and surprisingly there were no major differences in the stats in the first half in comparison to the second for either of the midfield’s last night, although Ramires put in a heck of a lot more effort of the ball in the second, tripling his number of tackles made and intercepting a lot more often. In tight games like these between top teams, quite often just one individual with that little bit more fire in his belly and that extra dosage of quality can make the difference, yesterday Ramires stepped up his game after half time and it was perhaps the telling contribution.
Carrick was much better last night (to be honest he is generally better against Chelsea than most would think), quicker on the ball, braver in the tackle and had purpose with his passing. Scholes was efficient as he so often is and Fletcher despite the ambiguous passing stats produced a Kuyt-esque performance on the right flank making sure the ball stuck like glue when receiving possession, fired in a fair number of crosses and challenged Ramires in the off the ball stakes. For Chelsea Essien was good without ever being brilliant, Lampard was excellent when running with the ball and put in a fair effort off it and Ramires was the glue which held it all together.
For both sides there are weaknesses however in this department which need resolving in time for next season and its a similar problem… both lack a young vibrant creative midfielder and thus both sides can come across very functional and one dimensional on the ball relying on their full backs or forwards to create out of nothing rather than feed them with a constant supply of through balls and clever passing… prepare for a United v Chelsea midfield transfer battle in the summer for a Fabregas-esque player…