11/01/2009 17:57, Report by Ben Hibbs
United 3 Chelsea 0
At the start of a crucial week in United’s season, the Reds issued a defiant message of intent by beating Chelsea comprehensively at Old Trafford. Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov scored the goals to cap a weekend where United got under the skin of both major title rivals.
The Reds, who started the match eight points behind the league leaders, could feasibly leapfrog Liverpool by the time the Merseysiders play their next league fixture - a difficult derby a week on Monday. To do that would require United beating Wigan on Wednesday at home, and Bolton Wanderers away on Saturday. But phase one – seeing off Chelsea – was comfortably completed on Sunday.
If the chaotically congested first half to the season was a task of laying foundations, then now the real work starts. And if a game against Chelsea early in 2009 wasn’t enough to announce that the title race really is gathering pace, Rafael Benitez’s bizarre, almost comical, rant on Friday certainly was the ignition to a significant weekend in the Premier League calendar. Liverpool’s 0-0 draw at Stoke City on Saturday presented United – and Chelsea, of course – with the chance to pile on the pressure.
Rio Ferdinand’s late withdrawal was a disruption ahead of the game, but the able Jonny Evans again deputised for Rio, who missed the four matches prior to this clash. Michael Carrick was a surprise omission, kept on the bench with Ryan Giggs starting in the centre of midfield alongside Darren Fletcher. But the Welshman was hugely influential.
Sir Alex predicted in his programme notes that he didn’t expect a goal frenzy and, though he would later be proved wrong, the early exchanges saw few clear chances. Chelsea postured with possession football, while United hinted at an intent to break sharply from midfield with Giggs and Park’s surging runs.
On 22 minutes United claimed a penalty when Ashley Cole handled Ronaldo’s cross.