Blues 1 Manchester United 1 .. Ron's Report

Last updated : 13 January 2010 By Richard Barker

Sir Alex Ferguson, wary of the most in-form team in world football, picked an ultra-defensive side with Wayne Rooney on his own up front.  In fact, with Paul Scholes shielding the United defence and Rooney dropping deep as he does, United effectively played a 4-1-5-0 formation - and it still wasn't enough to stop World Cup prospect Cameron Jerome scoring.
Blues picked, well, their Premier League side.  It's just the Blues team now - you don't need to tell me who's in it.  After eleven league games unbeaten, the team really does pick itself.
The first half an hour or so was probably as poor as Blues have played in three months.  They were panicky on the ball, conceded possession too often and were outmuscled by the opposition, which is something of a rarity these days. 
Rooney is a stunning footballer, and part of that is his work rate.  Playing him as a lone striker, from a defensive point of view, doesn't really hamper you at all, as he is able to close down the entire opposition backline on his own.  United also packed the centre of the midfield, which wasn't a bad call tactically.  In Blues' current run, Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer have all too often got on top of the midfield battle and Blues have been able to go on from there.  United put Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes all into the middle of the park to combat Blues in there.  In fairness, for United to pick their top three central midfielders in a changed formation to combat Blues, well, there's not many greater compliments than that.
Fletcher and Carrick went up against Ferguson and Bowyer and got on top early on.  That left Scholes free to play the deeper "quarterback" role that someone like Andrea Pirlo excels in.  Scholes was superb, dictating the play from deep.  Blues were their own worst enemy at times, giving the ball away far too cheaply, but United were really at it, prompted by Scholes.
The only real criticism of United was that they didn't create a great deal for all their possession.  Rooney forced Joe Hart into one good save, but otherwise it was a lot of long range efforts that, as we've seen lately, Blues players love throwing themselves in front of and blocking.
Still, it was fairly obvious that a goal was coming, and sure enough it did.  Surprisingly, however, it came for Blues.  Jerome earned a corner with about Blues' first attack.  United struggled to deal with the centre, Bowyer bravely headed back into the mix, the ball rebounded off a United defender and Jerome smashed in from about three yards.  Jerome's developing a nice habit of being in the right place at the right time when Blues have corners and the ball is loose - he's scored four or five similar goals in the past nine months or so.  It's a handy facet to his game.
The goal actually seemed to (finally) settle Blues, and whilst United were still on top until half-time, had Christian Benitez not overrun the ball in a two-on-one break, he may have laid in Jerome to miss when one-on-one with Tomasz Kuszczak.
Blues led at half-time, but you had to wonder how, given United's dominance.  Thankfully Blues came out and played properly in the second half, which was a much more even contest.
Benitez was a real thorn in United's side, and is such an enigma at times.  Sometimes he can look useless, such as the example above when Blues broke, and then the time in the first half that he tried to dribble past three United players in his own penalty area.  Other times though, he can look top class, and he twice manoeuvred himself superbly into fine goalscoring positions.  Unfortunately both times he shot straight at Kuszczak.  He does have a habit of hitting the goalkeeper when well placed.
Blues were troubling United much more, and Jerome should have done much, much better when well placed.  He could have shot from close range, but he also had Benitez and Bowyer supporting and should probably have slid the ball inside to either of them, both of whom were unmarked as Blues had opened United up.  However, for some bizarre reason he tried to clip a cross over to them and sent the ball high over their heads and out of play.
It proved costly, as moments later United were level, as their first half display merited.  It was something of a controversial goal as Blues failed to close down Patrice Evra who fired the ball across goal.  It hit someone and went in.  The assistant referee immediately raised his flag for offside.  Referee Mark Clattenburg discussed it with the assistant, before awarding the goal.
Now, by all accounts the ball went in off Scott Dann and thus was an own goal, hence the offside being irrelevant.  Now, if that is the rules, fair enough - no argument.  However, there is becoming a real issue with respect to the interpretation of the offside rule and all of this active/inactive positions that players are in.  If it's consistent from week to week and in game to game, again, fine - no problem.  The problem is though, in some games this goal would have been allowed, and in others it wouldn't.  There's no consistency.
The real issue is that, whilst the officials may know (in their mind) what the rules are, it appears that players, managers and, most importantly, fans don't.  In my mind, if Dann is trying to clear the ball before inadvertently scoring an own goal, he is doing so because of pressure from a United player/some United players.  Therefore, those United players are "active" - they're playing a part in the game.  If they weren't active, Dann wouldn't be dealing with the problem.  The assistant flagged to suggest that a United player was offside, therefore I would have thought that they were active, given what happened?
Regular readers will know that I try not to do sour grapes, and that's not what I'm doing here.  Honestly, if the rule is that, as long as one of the forwards doesn't touch the ball, then they can't be offside, then fine - it's a good goal.  However, it's just not clear exactly what the rule is, and it does seem to change each week.  If it was the same decision, week in, week out, fair enough. Credit to Evra for a stunning driven cross that created the goal though.
The offside thing was a bit of a recurring theme throughout the game though.  On a number of occasions Antonio Valencia was running back from an offside position when United cleared the ball.  When the ball was cleared, Valencia was still offside and he carried on jogging back.  However, as soon as the ball was over him, he would turn and close the Blues defenders down.  Now, I know for an absolute fact that offside decisions have been given for that in many, many matches this season.  If an offside player then turns to close down the defender, the assistant has flagged to say that he's suddenly become "active" as he's started to participate in the game again by closing the defender down.  However, that rule didn't seem to apply in this game.  Why not?  Again, it's not sour grapes - I wouldn't mind if it was the same rule each week, but it's not.
Anyway, it was 1-1 now and both teams probably fancied winning the game.  Blues, to their credit, weren't too shaken by conceding the goal and continued to press.  United dominated the first half, but Blues probably shaded the second half.
United's hopes of winning the game suffered a setback when Fletcher was sent off after about 85 minutes.  He'd been booked in the first half for a really bad challenge on Bowyer, and had pushed his luck throughout the game with some challenges and his constant mouthing off.  His second booking wasn't anything dangerous, but it was a cynical trip of Jerome when he'd skipped past him, so he could have no arguments.
The game carried on being fairly even, and then it was announced that there were six minutes of injury time.  I don't think this really suited either set of fans, who would both probably have settled for a draw by that point.  However, it does highlight another week-to-week inconsistency.
People who attend football matches regularly get a feel for how much injury time is coming - you can gauge it from the amount of injuries, substitutions, goals, time wasting, etc.  This, to me, felt like a four minute injury time game.  The norm is three or four minutes, and this seemed like one of those - no more than 4 though.  However, there was six.
Now, I can only assume that this came about because of United officials on the bench being in the referee's ear throughout the second half on the issue.  They may have wished they hadn't in the end, as Blues were the only side who looked likely to score in injury time.  Again, it's not sour grapes as it didn't affect the result and it was Blues who were helped most.  Indeed, an extra few minutes gets you better value for money.
Again though, it's the consistency.  Why is the added time such a mystery to everyone?  How can one referee add on six minutes where another one would add on three?  Let's face it, with the amount of stoppages in a half, it probably is closer to six than three or four.  It's probably more like eight or nine, in truth, if you add on time that the ball isn't in play.  So, add it all on - that's fine.  There's no problem as long as every referee does the same in every game, and it's consistent.  It's not though.  Ferguson is well known for his time-keeping rants, but you can sort of understand why he does it.  He got six minutes here, that he would normally be happy with, but next week, in very similar circumstances, there may only be three added on.
When Blues only really played for 45 minutes, and in the other 45 minutes they were pretty woeful, you really have to reflect on it as being a good result.  Three months ago, had Blues drawn at home to Manchester United, even if they'd been superb for 90 minutes, it would have been a good draw.  It's an indication of how far Blues have come that you reflect on a draw with the Champions as being a good result based on the fact that you never played well.  It's also an indication of the same thing that United were satisfied with a draw at St Andrews, despite dominating the first half.  Even though Blues weren't at their best, United were pleased with a point.
Blues broke a club record for consecutive unbeaten games in the top flight with this result (not many better teams to break such a record against), and you really cannot emphasise enough just what an achievement that is.  In those twelve unbeaten games, Blues have faced United, Chelsea and Manchester City at home, as well as gone to Liverpool and Everton.  They were not twelve easy games.  Some were bloody tough.
Blues are part of a Premier League top eight at the moment who have pulled away from the rest of the clubs.  Blues may be eighth in that group, but they're level on points with Liverpool, two points behind an Aston Villa side that most pundits are creaming their pants about, and four points behind a Champions League place.
I think the greatest indication of just how much Blues are punching above their weight is to consider that players that each of those clubs have at their disposal.  Yesterday Blues had the likes of Gary McSheffrey and Martin Taylor on the bench, whilst United had Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs (plus Dimitar Berbatov not involved).  The other teams in the top eight can leave the likes of Tomas Rosicky, Joe Cole, Ryan Babel, Robinho, Craig Bellamy, Robbie Keane, John Carew, etc, etc on the bench.  Blues have Franck Queudrue.
That's not even considering respective starting line ups - Jerome or Drogba?  Ridgewell or Evra?  Benitez or Defoe?  Larsson or Wright-Phillips?  Dann or Vermaelen?  McFadden or Arshavin?  Ferguson or Fabregas?  Bowyer or Carrick?  It goes on and on.  Blues are punching so far above their weight that it's scary, and an awful lot of credit has to go to Alex McLeish, Roy Aitken, Andy Watson et al for that.  Long may it continue.
On a final note, I'd like to comment on the Blues fans who on their way out of the ground were shouting Munich related insults to United fans; they're morons.  Whilst I can't apologise on their behalf, because they probably don't regret it, to any United fans who heard it (and there were quite a few judging by the reaction), I'm sorry that you had to endure that.