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Manchester United’s Robin Van Persie Nicks Point Off 10-Man Chelsea

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NOW, perhaps, Louis van Gaal has a better understanding why Sir Alex Ferguson used to boast no other side on the planet had Manchester United’s penchant for late drama. They were in the fourth minute of stoppage time when Robin van Persie pulled back his left foot to rescue them and here was another moment to punish anyone who risks heading for the exits when United are chasing a game and the clock is still ticking.

George Best tried it as the 1999 Champions League final moved into extra time, with the score at 1-0 to Bayern Munich. Their latest feat of escapology ranks further down the “football, bloody hell” scale but it was still some moment and the celebration from Van Persie told its own story. He was off, running to the crowd, peeling off his shirt, throwing it high and screaming to the skies. It felt like an explosion of pent-up emotion and that small moment revealed a lot, perhaps, about this club’s inner frustrations.

Until then, it had been straying dangerously close to becoming another ordeal. They had been losing since the 53rd minute, courtesy of Didier Drogba’s first Premier League goal since March 2012, and unlike so many other United comebacks there had been no real sense this one was brewing. Chelsea were not completely coasting but United’s response to going behind had been poor and the league leaders were on the verge of moving six points clear of Southampton and eight from Manchester City. United were looking desperately short of ideas. In Van Gaal’s words: “We lost our heads.”

Out of that, they should be mightily relieved about what followed. Everything started to unravel for Chelsea once Branislav Ivanovic fouled Ángel di María on the left wing and was sent off for his second booking.

Ivanovic’s first was on the same player but it scarcely warranted a yellow card and his sense of injustice will be compounded by the fact the referee, Phil Dowd, really should have awarded a penalty in his favour earlier in the match. As Ivanovic seethed in the tunnel, Di Maria whipped in the free-kick. Marouane Fellaini’s header was brilliantly saved by Thibaut Courtois but the rebound fell for Van Persie and he was on it in a flash. The power in his shot made it unstoppable.

Van Gaal was notably unenthused about his team’s performance, bemused to hear them being praised on television, and revealing that he had scolded his players because “normally you have to play your best against the best teams”. He was also unimpressed with Van Persie’s celebration, describing it as “stupid” because it had invited Dowd to show his yellow card again.

There was, however, something to admire about United’s perseverance and, though Chelsea had controlled large swathes of the game, the statistics backed up Van Gaal’s point that the home side had created more scoring opportunities. There was encouragement in the form of Luke Shaw and some nice flashes from another 19-year-old, Adnan Januzaj, higher up their left side. Van Persie looked sharper than he has done for a while and Di María never stopped wanting the ball even on a day when he flickered only sporadically.

Equally, there were sustained periods when Chelsea showed they are by far the more rounded team. Diego Costa had not recovered from his hamstring problems but Eden Hazard was superb on the left and it was his link-up with Drogba, culminating in a brilliant save from David de Gea, that led to the corner for their goal.

Fellaini’s close attentions meant Cesc Fàbregas could not exert his usual influence but Nemanja Matic was the driving force in midfield, quick to the ball, strong in the tackle, and one of the reasons, undoubtedly, why Van Gaal commented afterwards that United always seem to be smaller than their opponents.

That disparity cost United for Drogba’s goal and it was certainly a peculiar tactic that the man deployed with marking Chelsea’s scorer was their smallest defender, Rafael da Silva, giving away 16 centimetres in height. Until that point, Van Gaal’s team had shown a greater understanding of defence than has been seen at other times this season. Yet this was inexplicable. Van Persie could not keep out the ball on the goalline and Drogba, 37 on his next birthday, was running to the Chelsea fans for one of those look‑at‑me knee-slides that seemed to have been consigned to the past.

Seven of the game’s 10 bookings went to Chelsea, meaning the club will automatically be fined, but Mourinho’s real grievance went back to that moment late in the first half when another corner went into United’s penalty area and Marcos Rojo bundled John Terry to the floor while Chris Smalling was guilty of an even more blatant piece of illegal grappling on Ivanovic. Referees have been encouraged to penalise these type of offences and Chelsea were entitled to feel hard done by.

Maybe the home side might have done more to trouble Chelsea’s defence if Radamel Falcao had not suffered a training-ground injury and Wayne Rooney were not suspended. Yet Van Gaal’s reaction confirmed their imperfections are still widespread. The strange thing is that the late onslaught that might have been expected never really materialised. It was more a case of one free-kick, in a dangerous area, and a touch of fortune that when Fellaini’s header came back off Courtois it landed exactly where Van Persie wanted it. – The Guardian

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