Call it a comeback
United grabbed an unlikely point, while Arsenal showed it's also far from finished
As someone who has known the pain of epic second-half collapses (see The 4-4 Nightmare at St. James' Park and my recent back surgery), I almost felt sorry for Chelsea on Sunday. Here they were, decimated by injuries, suspensions and John Terry, up three goals on Manchester United at home and threatening to make Sir Alex Ferguson's head explode. What's not to like?
Oh, right. Their fans. What in the name of weird bearded Russian billionaires were they thinking, jeering Rio Ferdinand's every touch? Was this their subtle way of blaming him for the fact that his brother Anton had the "pleasure" of being racially abused by John Terry? Or were they booing because Rio diabolically took over the captaincy the last time Terry screwed up and then treated the armband with the respect it deserved until it was stripped from him and given back to the Chelsea defender?
Either way, stay classy, Chelsea fans. I'm not saying that you brought your second-half implosion on yourselves, but you kinda did. No wonder so many supporters slunk away from Stamford Bridge in the final five minutes of United's life-affirming 3-3 draw to get a head start on the postgame prawn sandwiches. After all, they knew no matter how many times they witlessly chanted "There's only one England captain," it couldn't possibly blunt United's ferocious desire and indomitable spirit.
And to think that only 40 minutes earlier, Chelsea had its foot on United's neck and was looking to crush the life out of its title challenge. Not that falling behind Man City by three points would have been necessarily fatal, but there's no denying the psychological boost it would have given their neighbors if United's humiliation at the Bridge continued apace. Yet if there's one thing that is abundantly clear in Sir Alex 's long and imperious reign, it's that you write off his teams at your own peril. Not only did United surge back from the abyss to earn a critical point, it once again reminded Man City that the only way it'll lift the trophy is if it prises it from the grasping, gum-scented talons of a ruddy 70-year-old Scot.
If Roberto Mancini needs advice as to how to handle this relentless pressure, let me suggest that he ignore any friendly phone calls from Kevin Keegan or Rafael Benitez.
This was a game that in their infinite ratings-seeking wisdom, the programming gods decided was safe for the Great Unwashed (i.e., those without cable) to view as a sort of exotic amuse-bouche whetting the appetite ahead of the more carnivorous entertainment of the Super Bowl. (Oh, and where the Blues could have learned a thing or two from Big Blue about how to put away a fierce rival. And yes, I'm "Tucking" as I write this.)
And from an EPL perspective, you could have hardly drawn up a more thrilling, surreal advertisement for the self-proclaimed greatest league in the world: high scoring (six goals, including a Spanish fantastico fashioned by Fernando Torres and Juan Mata, and drilled past a third Iberian, David De Gea); controversy (a couple of dodgy penalty calls); big-time personalities (Wayne Rooney nervelessly slotting away two penalty kicks while sporting the world's first transplanted faux-hawk; Torres delivering the cross of the season but choking in front of goal with a Chelsea victory on his right foot); nostalgia (Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes rolling back their 138 combined years to orchestrate United's fight back in the last 30 minutes); comedy (a Jonny Evans own goal and almost everything de Gea did until stoppage time); last-minute heroics (two stunning, acrobatic saves by de Gea); and, of course, several shameless dives (we're looking at you, Daniel Sturridge, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck).
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Judging from the number of guys decked out in Giants jerseys jumping up and down at my local watering hole when United equalized, the "game before the game" turned out to be a pretty nifty marketing gambit. Too bad it had to conclude with that most un-American of endings: a draw. Still, if this wasn't a draw that makes draws exciting to the U.S. audience, then that draw doesn't exist.
But who in their right mind would have envisioned the 3-3 denouement after 51 minutes? Even though Stamford Bridge tends to bring out the worst in United -- the Red Devils haven't won there in ten years -- Sir Alex must have liked his chances with Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Terry all missing from Chelsea's lineup (while Jose Bosingwa and Florent Malouda were in it).
And then there was the added benefit of having Howard Webb, England's World Cup final-ruining "premier" referee, clutching the whistle. While referees are known to lack bias, the last person who was this loving to Sir Alex was probably the one who gave birth to him. Thus, you can imagine Fergie's shock and fury when the Webb Master forgot to throw Blues debutant Gary Cahill off the field for his 11th-minute WWE takedown of Welbeck on the edge of the box as the United striker burst in on goal. Never a man to keep his opinions to himself, Sir Alex exploded out of his seat, arms flapping like de Gea coming for a cross, and gave the fourth official a powerful hairdryer blast while threatening, in no uncertain terms, not to renew Webb's contract.
Fergie's tantrum only added to the fractious atmosphere at the Bridge, where Terry sat out with a bad knee and a ruptured ego. The Blues hardly missed his voluble leadership in the first 50 minutes with Michael Essien imposing his muscular authority on the midfield, and Sturridge owning Patrice Evra on the right flank. It was from one of the ex-Man City winger's scorching dribbles that Chelsea scored its first goal. Leaving Evra hopelessly flat-footed in his slipstream, Sturridge dragged a pass back from the byline only for de Gea to stretch out his leg and deflect the ball off Evans' chest and into the goal.
Whatever Ferguson said to his men at halftime was hardly the stuff of Lombardi-esque legend, as, within six minutes of the restart, United came out with all the energy of a "Downton Abbey" dinner party. Chelsea was ahead 3-0 and secure in the knowledge that it had never lost a Prem match when three goals to the good.
Game over? Not quite. First Evra surged into the box, looking for a penalty, and was promptly obliged by Sturridge. (Ironically, Sturridge's clumsy foul came moments after Andre Villas-Boas lambasted his striker for not tracking back enough.) Rooney, who has hardly been money from the spot this season (missing against Chelsea at Old Trafford), displayed his granite-like stones by stepping up and crushing the ball into the top corner. Continuing to try to make it up to Sir Alex for his earlier lapse, Webb pointed to the spot after another egregious Welbeck stumble (this time over Branislav Ivanovic's completely stationary foot). Rooney slammed this one into the other corner, making it 3-2 and taking United's gift total to four penalty kicks in its past two games.
In the 77th minute, Torres had a glorious chance to put an end to United's remarkable fight back, but the Spaniard is as much a threat in front of goal as Webb is invisible, and Abramovich's $80 million man continued his streak of not scoring a goal in 4½ months by dithering and dallying until a man in red kindly relieved him of the ball. It's gotten to the point that mocking Torres for his haplessness isn't even fun; it's just Sarah Palin-sad.
But you couldn't blame El Nino for the woefully slack defending that left Javier Hernandez hilariously unmarked in front of Petr Cech's goal for Giggs to find him in the 84th minute for a fierce, equalizing header. That honor goes to Sideshow Luiz, who was apparently too busy picking out the latest nest of birds taking up residence in his bobbing locks to notice the Little Pea ghosting in behind him.
So United's staggering comeback was complete, and while Villas-Boas was too shell-shocked (and possibly panicked about his job security) to comment on the Webb of intrigue that surrounded the result other than to say "Maybe Howard was compensating," my guess is that Roman just added the name "Jose Mourinho" back into his speed-dial.
Who says Arsenal can't score goals?
Maybe it was the sight of Thierry Henry smiling and high-fiving with Robin van Persie as the goals flew in, but for one glorious Saturday morning I time-traveled back to those Invincible days when Arsenal cut teams to pieces with jaw-dropping regularity and I didn't need three beers before 10 a.m. to calm my jangling nerves. Yes, I know it was a 7-1 evisceration of a Blackburn team currently swirling down the Prem drain -- not only carrying the worst defensive record in the league but forced to play the final 50 minutes a man down -- as opposed to a prime-time beatdown of, say, Manchester City. But it was still a much-needed balm for the ravaged soul of my beloved club after a month of listless performances and mutinous protests at the Emirates.
One win in their last six games had dropped the Gunners to seventh place and forced them to contemplate the unthinkable: the absence of Champions League soccer for the first time in 15 years and a possible sad end to the stylishly attacking and debt-free era of Arsene Wenger. But all that was forgotten within 82 seconds when Theo Walcott, one of the most vilified hood ornaments of Arsenal's underachieving season, steered a low, seeing-eye cross through a tangle of Blackburn defenders and onto the he's-not-going-to-miss-from-there foot of van Persie to begin the deluge on poor Paul Robinson.
By the end, both Walcott and van Persie would have hat tricks -- the former with three assists and the latter with three goals -- and the Gunners would exact sweet revenge on a team that arguably handed Arsenal its most embarrassing defeat of the season. It's one thing to get mauled by United 8-2, defending champions and highly pedigreed side of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney, but to be scalped by woeful Rovers at Ewood Park on two slapstick own goals after being spotted a 3-1 halftime cushion was for me the absolute nadir of this maddening campaign.
So when Morten Gamst Pedersen equalized with a sublime top-corner free kick in the 31st minute, I felt my blood chill, and implored Shirley, the bartender at Kinsale Tavern, with the four words she had come to know all too well this season: "I'll have a Stella." It was 8:30 a.m.
But before I could even take a sip, RvP once again proved why he, even more so than David Silva, is the EPL's MVP. Alex Song, given freedom by Mikel Arteta to maraud forward, took out four Blackburn defenders with his perfectly measured through ball to Walcott who once again looked up to see the Dutchman in front of goal. Two-one. From there, it became the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Show, or, as I like to call him, "What Theo Walcott Always Promised To Be When He Grew Up."
The 18-year-old winger was starting his fourth straight game in the absence of Gervinho (African Nations Cup) and Andrei Arshavin (Useless) and had impressed with his speed, touch and intelligent movement off the ball. But on Saturday, we learned something else about the former Southampton tyro: Feed the Ox and he will score. Two superb goals -- in which he demonstrated the kind of cool in the box that has eluded Walcott on so many occasions -- earned him a standing ovation from the crowd, and though it's far too early to proclaim him the new Robert Pires, if he can continue to exude the kind of swagger he displayed against Blackburn, then maybe, just maybe, he will take some of the pressure off van Persie to score all the Gunners' goals.
As it is, RvP now has 28 goals from 28 starts in all competitions, with only his unselfishness preventing him from making it 29. With the goal gaping in the final seconds, he magnanimously laid the ball off for Henry, his Highbury mentor, to score the seventh on what may be his last home appearance before he goes back to his glamorous MLS life with the Red Bulls.
As Henry did his post-goal valedictory lap, there was unbounded joy all around the Emirates. The treble is still on, Wenger knows what he's doing, and all is right with the world.
Until next week.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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