Chelsea 1 – 0 Man Utd
By Sam Lyon
John Terry grabbed the only goal of the game to extend Chelsea’s Premier League lead to five points and deal a big blow to Manchester United’s title chances.
The Blues skipper met Frank Lampard’s free-kick late on to earn his side a barely-deserved 10th straight home win.
But a makeshift United side will feel aggrieved after a fine display, with Darren Fletcher in impressive form.
Wayne Rooney twice went close from range, but a lack of cutting edge cost the reigning champions dear in the end.
And with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side now five points behind their London rivals, United must hope Chelsea’s current form falls away if they are to win a fourth successive title.
They can at least be comforted by a brave performance, though, especially considering the absence of centre-half pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, as well as striker Dimitar Berbatov.
That meant Jonny Evans and Wes Brown were again paired in defence – and up against the in-form frontline of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, many expected them to have their work cut out at the Bridge.
The pair held up well, though, aided enormously by the return to league action of Fletcher following a recent ankle problem – the Scot, so often a pivotal player for them in the big games in the past, typifying the visitors’ relentless and disciplined approach.
Matching up against Chelsea’s diamond formation, with Rooney floating and Antonio Valencia pushed up against left back Ashley Cole, United stifled their opponents’ rhythm and just had the better of a keenly-fought first half.
Twice Chelsea got the better of close early refereeing decisions, firstly when Anderson set Rooney through on goal only for the striker to be harshly ruled offside and then when Terry escaped punishment for an apparent tug on Valencia’s shirt in the box.
Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick also had efforts from range to keep home keeper Petr Cech interested.
However, a lack of a real killer pass or shot in the final third often had lone striker Rooney cutting a forlorn figure and it was Chelsea who forged the more clear-cut chances – particularly through Anelka.
The Frenchman had an early sighter with a near post shot that Edwin van der Sar held comfortably, and he forced a far more impressive save from the Dutchman just after the half hour with a left-foot curler that the keeper had to beat away on the stretch.
In a half of few chances, it was by far the closest either side had come to a breakthrough – and the pattern of play was almost identical in the second.
The irrepressible Fletcher forged the first opening of the half when his fierce drive was well blocked by Carvalho, while at the other end Van der Sar comfortably saved from Lampard’s low left-footed drive.
While it remained 0-0, Ferguson – mindful of his side’s failure to get anything out of four of their last five away matches against a ‘big four’ team – was by far the more comfortable manager and it was Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti who blinked first from the sidelines, bringing on Joe Cole for the ineffective Deco.
But it was Rooney at the other end who twice come closest to breaking the deadlock, his first effort a drive inches wide from the edge of the area and the second a curler that had to be tipped round the post by Cech.
However, Chelsea under Ancelotti have been imperious at home and all United’s play counted for nothing when Terry rose highest to meet Lampard’s pinpoint free-kick and put the Londoners into a precious lead.
To compound the visitors’ deflation, United had argued that Fletcher, in conceding the crucial free-kick, had won the ball from Ashley Cole and that Drogba was in an offside position as the ball flew in – but their protests fell on deaf ears.
All of a sudden United were the side displaying an air of desperation, and even as Valencia drove wide and substitute Gabriel Obertan forced a good block late in the game, there was a lack of belief among the visitors’ late rally.
As it was, Chelsea’s record of not having conceded a home goal in the league since the opening day of the season rarely looked in trouble late on and the final whistle prompted scenes of jubilation among a home faithful with a firm eye on regaining a Premier League title they have not won since 2006.