Valencia, Rooney, Cleverley gain ground in standoff

Posted by Musa Okwonga

0-0. It may have been tempting to treat the excitement of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho's prematch soundbites as the prelude to an Old Trafford thriller: As it transpired, they were one of the most entertaining things about this fixture.

If Monday's Manchester United-Chelsea game did have one overarching narrative, it was one of redemption. Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney and Tom Cleverley, for differing reasons, have each had reason to doubt their futures in the starting XI, yet they were all among this contest’s leading players. Cleverley, in particular, was excellent at protecting possession, bringing the ball upfield safely, and extracting it from awkward situations in defence.

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Farther forward, too, he passed perceptively between the lines, offering the form which made him by far Michael Carrick's best midfield partner last season, both domestically and in the Champions League.

Mourinho has spoken much in recent weeks of Chelsea’s desire to sign Rooney, and -- as if in some form of protest at the quality of his first-choice strikers -- began with Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku on the bench, with the capable but uninspired Andre Schurrle up front.

Lukaku, having scored a hat trick against Manchester United at the end of last season for West Bromwich Albion, may have been disappointed not to have been given a kick. Mourinho sent out a team with four highly mobile forwards who potentially presented a great threat to Manchester United, drawing out their defenders with excellent movement.

As it transpired, though, the game assumed a conservative form early on. Frank Lampard passed fairly well from deep, but sat far back in case Danny Welbeck and Rooney ran in behind him. Robin van Persie provided the only real danger of note in the first half, beautifully eluding his man before trashing the ball into the side-netting, but by the time halftime arrived a goalless opening period was wholly unsurprising.

It speaks volumes that the outstanding performer, freed from the apparent shackles of the No. 7 shirt, was Antonio Valencia, whose obdurate defence frequently subdued Eden Hazard and Ashley Cole.

The home side, perhaps sensing that the momentum was with them, began the second half with greater urgency. Rooney, his name chanted loudly and often by the crowd, continued to work all over the pitch, and by the end would have made crucial interventions in both the right-back and left-back positions.

He presented what was maybe the game’s decisive moment: a short pass into the area to the feet of Welbeck, on 55 minutes. No more than 10 yards out, to the right of the penalty box, the England forward swiveled and, with John Terry losing his balance, slashed the ball harmlessly over the bar.

If he had placed a shot on target, Petr Cech would have had grave cause for alarm. As it was, though, the match meandered on.

Valencia later made way for Ashley Young, and Welbeck for Ryan Giggs: Young provided a greater depth of crossing, and somewhat better accuracy, though United’s forwards often attacked too narrowly to stretch Chelsea’s defence as they could have. There may be concern in some quarters that Shinji Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha were not used, but the counterattacking strengths of Chelsea -- seen briefly in Hazard's dangerous incursions -- were such that United manager David Moyes saw fit to play safe, making only attacking changes in wide areas.

As the game came to a close, and the temperature was raised only by a charged-down van Persie effort toward injury time, there was a sense that Moyes had taken a tentative step in the right direction.

On the one hand, there will be those who bemoan his tactical conservatism in the late stages, in not going all-out for the win -- especially with Juan Mata, one of the world’s best architects of the counterattack, remaining mysteriously on the Chelsea bench.

On the other hand, it should be noted that this was only Moyes’ second Premier League game with United, and his first at Old Trafford: He presumably would have been happy to get it over with, particularly with a point -- a good result at this stage of the season -- against one of the strongest challengers to his club’s title. It’s not a game he will necessarily remember with any thrill, but he might recall it with a quiet satisfaction.

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