United defeat ignites lackluster season

Martin Rogers
Wayne Rooney and United have work to do in order to maintain their EPL lead after losing to Chelsea

Sir Alex Ferguson was predictably livid after the controversial decision that ruined his night, but the simple fact is that Manchester United's defeat to Chelsea on Tuesday was exactly what the English soccer season desperately needed.

United boss Ferguson could not disguise his fury at the penalty decision that allowed Frank Lampard to secure a 2-1 win for Chelsea, kept his own team's championship lead at four points and means the English Premier League title race remains finely balanced.

Ferguson’s ire was further raised when referee Martin Atkinson did not send off Chelsea's David Luiz for what appeared to be a clear second bookable offense in the second half.

"Decisions like that change everything," Ferguson told Sky Sports. "[Chelsea] got a lot of decisions that surprised me in a major game like that. There is no doubt about that. We played very well. It was a great performance, and we didn't deserve to lose. It is not right."

Ferguson, quite rightly, is concerned only with the success (or lack thereof) of his own team, yet for the neutral fan, the way things transpired could not have been more perfect.

Because now, instead of United cruising toward the title and turning the closing weeks of the season into a formality, the championship race has been blown wide open. Arsenal can console itself for blowing the Carling Cup final by continuing to chip away at the gap, and the recent slip-ups from Man City, thought to be terminal to its chances, may not be. Even Chelsea, after such a long barren spell, will believe it still has some chance at pulling off a dramatic revival.

United ground out result after result for the first six months of the season, but suddenly it has a giant target on its back and is looking increasingly frail. It will be without Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans for this weekend's clash with Liverpool, where there is a real threat of more precious points slipping away.

Could it be that Tuesday was a microcosm of United's season, with things seemingly under control before the Red Devils ran out of steam? Ferguson's men were outstanding in the early exchanges at Stamford Bridge and went into halftime carrying a deserved lead thanks to Wayne Rooney.

The second half belonged to Chelsea, though, as Carlo Ancelotti's team, under-fire and out-of-sorts for so much of this season, finally found its old rhythm. Fernando Torres did not score but produced his finest performance since joining from Liverpool, and goals from Luiz and Lampard clinched the Chelsea revival.

Despite Ferguson's protests, the quality of the contest was high and provided a welcome antidote to the negative publicity that led up to the match. Ashley Cole's stupidity at firing an air gun at the Chelsea training ground, combined with Rooney managing to escape punishment for a vicious elbow in United's victory at Wigan, provided enough headlines to overshadow the real build-up.

Thankfully the soccer itself was good enough to give English soccer a positive advertisement when it really needed one.

While it has not been a campaign packed with sheer excellence, there has rarely been a dearth of excitement. Another boost would come in the form of a title race that does not become a procession, and fortunately that now seems likely.

The fates seem to command that this season will go down to the wire. Even more so now, with the title race up for grabs once more.