It is on nights like this when these Manchester United players deliver. When Wayne Rooney reminds us why his employers took a sledgehammer to their wage structure to keep him.
When Rio Ferdinand defies all logic and delivers a colossal performance on his first appearance in more than two months. When Edwin van der Sar throws himself across the six-yard box like a goalkeeper half his age. And when Ryan Giggs forgets he, too, is now getting on a bit and plays like the winger who once terrorised right backs across Europe.
Even if they have an advantage in this fiercely contested tie because of a referee’s failure to spot a clear penalty for Chelsea in stoppage time, United deserved the precious away goal they take back to Old Trafford. Just as they deserved their first win here at Stamford Bridge in nine years.
They were terrific; as defiant as Sir Alex Ferguson has been in the face of so much criticism these past few weeks and as determined as ever, proving once again that success has not spoiled them; that they remain as hungry as a manager who at one point turned to United’s supporters and demanded they raise the decibel level another notch.
No wonder Ferguson so adores Giggs. Whatever his secret, be it the yoga he practises to keep those aging muscles supple or the ultra-professional attitude that has allowed him to break all those records, the Welshman is becoming something of a modern medical phenomenon.
Ferguson deployed him in central midfield here, but the burst of speed he produced to race past Jose Bosingwa and deliver the ball that enabled Rooney to land that 24th-minute blow was amazing.
Freakish almost. But Giggs was not alone in impressing. Not even close given the composure of Ferdinand, the class of Rooney and the enduring excellence of Van der Sar. The athletic dive he produced to push a Fernando Torres header to safety in the second half was magnificent. The man is 40, for crying out loud.
Chelsea, by comparison, were disappointing. They might argue they unleashed more shots on goal than their opponents and they will consider Alberto Mallenco’s mistake in missing Patrice Evra’s foul on Ramires further evidence that they are jinxed in this competition.
Carlo Ancelotti is sure to feel the football gods are conspiring against him when he may need to win this competition to save his neck and, like his players, he was angry. But they fell short where United stood tall. That one decent header aside, Torres produced another stuttering performance, memorable only for the dives that earned him one yellow card when it could have been two.
While Didier Drogba worked tirelessly before Ancelotti took the surprising decision to hook him, rather than the Spaniard, the partnership with Torres struggled against Ferdinand and the equally formidable Nemanja Vidic.
In midfield, too, Chelsea lacked the required spark. Frank Lampard and Michael Essien competed well enough with Giggs and Michael Carrick but the only contribution of note from Ramires — prior, of course, to the penalty claim — and Yuri Zhirkov were the challenges that earned punishment from Mallenco and had Ferguson raging.
With the selection of Rooney and Javier Hernandez in attack, Ferguson intended to keep John Terry and his defensive colleagues busy, even if the selection of grafters in Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia on the flanks also suggested the United manager was playing it fairly safe. Ferdinand wasted no time in demonstrating Ferguson might have been preparing him all along for this game, denying Torres with a superb interception.
Chelsea saw Rooney as the danger man. There were naughty, studs-up challenges from Essien and then from Ramires, both of them leaving Rooney on the ground writhing in apparent agony. But that did not stop the England striker scoring with a fine first-time finish, initially thanks to Carrick’s diagonal ball but more so because of the brilliance of Giggs.
It was astonishing, the sight of Giggs controlling Carrick’s 40-yard pass and accelerating beyond Bosingwa in one glorious movement before delivering the ball to Rooney. Positioned close to the penalty spot, Rooney calmly slotted his shot beyond the reach of Petr Cech and in off the far post.
Further foul challenges followed — with Zhirkov picking up a belated first booking for a crunching tackle on Hernandez — as did the sight of Torres diving in desperation. And when Rafael came off second best in a collision with Drogba after the break, Ferguson was forced to make a change that put more pressure on Ferdinand and his colleagues. He had to move Valencia to right back and deploy Nani on the wing.
Before that, Chelsea had gone desperately close to equalising. Having escaped the clutches of Ferdinand and Rafael, Drogba sent in a cross that missed an advancing Torres but also bounced beyond Van der Sar, off the far post and into the path of Lampard.
He, in turn, did well to get in a shot when he was off balance but his effort was cleared off the line by Evra before Carrick blocked his second attempt. It was courageous defending, even if Chelsea could count themselves unfortunate.
Nothing, however, compared to the sense of injustice in the dying minutes after Evra came in from the wrong side to take Ramires as well as the ball. It sparked ugly scenes at the end, Mallenco being shoved after booking Torres for diving.
Ancelotti felt the need to order his players away from the official when the final whistle went — only for the Chelsea boss to then remonstrate himself, painfully aware now of the pressure he will be under next week.
Cech; Bosingwa (Mikel 78min), Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Zhirkov (Malouda 70); Drogba (Anelka 71), Torres.
Subs not used: Turnbull, Ferreira, Benayoun, Kalou.
Booked: Zhirkov, Ramires, Essien,
Manchester United (4-4-2):
Van der Sar; Rafael (Nani 51), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Park (Smalling 90), Giggs; Rooney, Hernandez (Berbatov 78).
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Evans, Scholes, Gibson.
Booked: Vidic, Van der Sar.
Man of the match: Wayne Rooney.
Referee: Alberto Mallenco (Sp).
Copyright 2011 by The Daily Mail