Imperious Terry stars in stalemate

Posted by Phil Lythell

Chelsea passed their first tough test of the season on Monday when they emerged from their trip to Manchester United with a 0-0 draw. It might not have been the most exhilarating spectacle and the neutrals might not have been enraptured by the match, though the purists will be purring over a magnificent defensive display from the boys in Blue.

So dominant were both defences that the most eye-catching event took place before the game kicked off, when the Chelsea team sheet revealed that they would be taking the field at Old Trafford without a recognised centre-forward.

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Andre Schurrle was designated by Jose Mourinho to lead the line. It is safe to say that the plan didn’t work, although it was not for lack of trying. The young German was constantly on the move, making arcing runs between the United centre backs, yet not receiving service of the requisite quality. Ramires and Frank Lampard were both wasteful in possession in the first half and Schurrle’s lack of stature meant he was not equipped to physically battle either Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand when he was unable to escape their attentions.

Mourinho was forced to accept the experiment was failing 15 minutes into the second half when he decided to bring on an orthodox striker, though again the manager sprang a surprise in his decision to bring on Fernando Torres rather than the hulking Romelu Lukaku, who netted a hat trick against United for West Bromwich Albion on the final day of last season.

The switch immediately gave Chelsea a more cohesive shape and they finally managed to look more threatening as they attacked with added purpose. Torres' display might not have been breathtaking, but he did ask many more questions of the home side’s back four, providing a genuine outlet for Chelsea's counterattacks.

The Spaniard was also helped by much-improved second-half performances from Ramires and Lampard. There had been a distinct absence of composure from the two in the opening 45 minutes, with the ball turned over far too cheaply and any chance to build momentum wasted.

After the break, the right passes started to be both selected and executed resulting in more possession in the United half and periods of concerted pressure. Nevertheless, no clear chance at goal was created throughout the 90 minutes by either team, and while some might choose to question the contributions of the game's talented forward players, credit instead should be given to the defences.

For Chelsea, the entire back four can give itself a big pat on the back. Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic both worked tirelessly in denying United space in wide areas. Whenever half a yard was created by the Red Devils, invariably an outstretched Cole boot appeared to thwart a cross into the penalty area.

The main plaudits, however, must be given to John Terry and Gary Cahill who were virtually flawless all evening, both individually and as a unit. The Chelsea skipper was especially impressive, putting in one of those towering performances upon which a magnificent career has been built. The world-class Robin van Persie was totally snuffed out by Terry's peerless reading of the play, with timely interceptions denying the striker any real service.

Many have been quick to write the Englishman’s footballing obituary, and it was gratifying to see him answer his critics in typically dogged fashion at the home of the champions with the eyes of the footballing world trained on Old Trafford.

Alongside him, Cahill also impressed in his duel with the effervescent Wayne Rooney. The reported Chelsea target played with a point to prove and tested the centre back with his movement and strength, though his England international colleague was up to the challenge. Cahill prevented Rooney from causing too many alarms while imposing himself aerially to anything delivered into the box.

Farther forward, there are still plenty of questions to be asked. Juan Mata’s non-selection baffled once again -- even if it was expected -- though the fact that he remained on the bench for the duration of the match was much more puzzling.

With the Blues crying out for a decent final pass, one would expect a man who provided over 30 assists in all competitions last season to have been introduced with the game opening up in the final quarter. The little magician did not feature too much in preseason thanks to his Confederations Cup duties with Spain and a knock suffered upon his return, so maybe Mourinho will point toward that when explaining his decision to omit Mata. The real story will become clear as the season develops, but it is hard to escape the worrying feeling that Mata's days might be numbered under the Special One.

The Lukaku, Mata and Schurrle questions aside, Chelsea will be very pleased with the point gained at Old Trafford. One of the most difficult matches has been dealt with at an early stage, and the defence already looks far more solid than the past two seasons.

Much work needs to be done on the training ground from an attacking perspective, and there remains a sense that Mourinho is still searching for his best XI. But given the team is a work in progress and still building into its new guise, a draw at Manchester United and the retention of top spot in the nascent 2013-14 Premier League table must be applauded.

Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilLythell

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