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Midfield shortages highlight Chelsea’s European flaws

If in doubt, always claim the midfield is where a game will be won and lost. Easily applied to almost any situation, most observers will nod their head knowingly and agree if you find yourself short of insight and reel the most generic of analysis out.

So stay with me as I propose this area must improve if Chelsea are to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League – it was this combative middle area of the pitch which contributed to the downfall of Chelsea.

As the team sheets emerged Carlo Ancelotti would have been rubbing his hands together with glee when he cast his glance towards the Man Utd line up. A ponderous central midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs would be there for the taking with dynamic energy of Michael Essien and Frank Lampard at their disposal.

To counteract their lack of mobility, Sir Alex Ferguson opted for Park Ji-Sung over flat-track bully Nani on the left wing, with the South Korean tucking infield to support a central midfield selection that looked static and most of all, light. They would be overrun.

With football betting unable to split the two sides, any small advantage would have to be exploited, and Chelsea were given their cue.

In truth, to some extent they succeeded. For large portions of the game Wayne Rooney was forced to drop deep to help out, nullifying his attacking threat especially in the second half, while Jose Bosingwa was given free rein to occupy dangerous attacking positions in the absence of Park and Evra, who at times lost his defensive discipline.

But Chelsea got it wrong. Ramires was chosen on the right but drifted in constantly to nullify any advantage Chelsea had, leaving Bosingwa – even at the best of times ordinary in defence –exposed to the United’s attacking threat. And so it proved as a raking Carrick ball found Giggs popping up on Chelsea’s now vulnerable right hand side to feed Rooney for the only goal of the night.

United got their house in order and kept their shape well for every Chelsea attack, with both Vidic and Ferdinand dealing ably with any ball thrown into the area, while the Blues were found wanting in that department when United struck.

Essien and Lampard both had an opportunity to set the tempo of the match at a pace that would have made United uncomfortable, and the fact they failed to do so was reflected in the sometimes subdued atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge.

Ferguson admitted after the game they had come for a clean sheet and to “play on the counterattack”, and their defensive set up was solid, frustrating a Chelsea side playing in the straight lines their system forced.

Yet despite this, when Didier Drogba was replaced by Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda was bought on for Yuri Zhirkov, Chelsea were reinvigorated by their release from the 4-4-2 that United had found so easy to marshal and could have taken something from the game.

Anelka in particular was picking up disruptive positions behind the midfield and in front of the dfence and distributed the ball well out wide to Bosingwa as he attempted to jolt United out of their comfort zone, while United were forced deeper and deeper. Were it not for an outstanding Van der Sar save and a dubious refereeing decision they would be travelling to Old Trafford full of hope.

This United side are not world beaters. More work horses than show ponies, they are still there for the taking if Ancelotti and Chelsea can take advantage.

European games are always tactical chess battles, and while United took the first half, the second was Chelsea’s and it is only fine margins that separate them from the victory they so crave. The second leg will be a different game altogether, with United likely to come forward more in front of a home crowd despite their lead.

Chelsea will have to watch the counter-attack again, especially the pace of Nani (who will play next week) and Rooney, but if they can play at speed and make United uncomfortable with a more fluid approach to the game, especially in midfield, then revenge for 2008 is still up for grabs, and some Chelsea football bets can finally be redeemed.

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