Chelsea punish Rooney-less United to regain top position

Joe Cole (SUPPLIED)

Chelsea took maximum advantage of Wayne Rooney's enforced absence to move into pole position in the Premier League title race with a 2-1 win over Manchester United here yesterday.

Goals from Joe Cole and substitute Didier Drogba amounted to a fair reflection of the Londoners domination of opponents who looked distinctly short of inspiration without their 34-goal star striker.

A late strike from substitute Federico Macheda ensured United kept the contest alive to the death and, on another day, United might also have enjoyed a better return from three debatable penalty appeals.

"It's disappointing – it's just the quality of the official I'm afraid cost us the game,'' said United manager Alex Ferguson after the match.

But the champions could scarcely complain about the outcome after failing to create a single clear scoring opportunity in open play before Macheda bundled a cross from fellow substitute Nani over the line with nine minutes left.

Rooney's absence did not entail a change of shape for United, with Dimitar Berbatov – who once again failed to live up to his status as the most expensive signing in the club's history – slotting in at the sharp end of an attacking trident made up of Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia.

Ancelotti's pre-match suggestion that Drogba was too important to be left out proved to be a smokescreen as the Italian opted for the same line-up that started last weekend's 7-1 demolition of Aston Villa.

That meant Nicolas Anelka leading the line and Cole and Florent Malouda occupying the flanks and it was the two wide men who combined to give Chelsea the lead after 20 minutes of cagey opening exchanges.

From wide on the left, Malouda wriggled past Valencia, turned inside Gary Neville and powered into the area, muscling Darren Fletcher aside on his way to the byline.

The Frenchman's low cross found Cole at the near post and, despite the attentions of Patrice Evra, the England international was able to produce a deft little flick through his own legs to find the net.

That piece of improvisation made amends for Cole having wasted the best chance of the match until then, when he shanked his shot from an inviting Anelka pass. For United, Berbatov had headed a Valencia cutback high over the bar and Evra had had an effort from the corner of the penalty area comfortably saved by Petr Cech.

The home side did have two first-half penalty appeals, Park Ji-Sung tumbling, somewhwat theatrically, under a challenge from Yuri Zhirkov and Berbatov behing up-ended by Frank Lampard, who looked to have played the ball fractionally before he swept the Bulgarian's standing leg away.

 

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