Georgina Turner
Tuesday April 6th, 2010

Hats off to Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, who surprised everyone -- perhaps even Didier Drogba himself -- by leaving his leading goal scorer on the bench against Manchester United and fielding the same starting 11 that had demolished Aston Villa the week before.

Let's hope Sir Alex Ferguson uncorked a decent vintage for his customary postmatch drink with the opposing manager, because Ancelotti certainly deserved the good stuff after claiming what could turn out to be a title-winning 2-1 victory at Old Trafford last Saturday.

Anyone would earn praise for taking it to the current champions on their own turf with such gusto, but Ancelotti showed particular courage in breaking his habit of formation fiddling with a slant toward the cautious. A team sheet showing the names of Joe Cole and Nicolas Anelka and not Michael Ballack and Drogba was not just a surprise but a gamble, even taking into account that United had lost four of six previous post-Champions League matches this season. What's more, Drogba does not take kindly to watching matches from the bench, especially having insisted that he was fit.

But Ancelotti's plan -- to come straight out at United with "high-intensity, high-tempo" football -- worked almost perfectly. Chelsea forced tired United legs around the pitch to open up the kind of spaces that allowed Cole, fed in by the sprightly Florent Malouda, to flick in the Blues' first goal after 20 minutes. The home side began to show signs of life in the second half, but Drogba's frustration at starting on the bench was dulled by the opportunity to finish the match a hero. His 25th goal of the season, as a substitute in the 79th minute, ensured that even when United youngster Federico Macheda beat Petr Cech just minutes later, the away side retained the upper hand.

Of course, Chelsea was helped by United, whose elderly midfield frequently gave the impression that even it had expected to be fielded differently. With Ryan Giggs picked to start over Nani, the potential to exploit wide spaces at pace was always going to be diminished; within eight minutes of coming on in the second half, Nani had worked his way past Paulo Ferreira to set up Macheda's goal. Fielding Paul Scholes rather than Michael Carrick meant that possession was lost, rather than won, in midfield -- Scholes has almost been lauded for his terrible tackling over the years, but his listlessness in the last week is a new infamy. Few eyebrows will be raised by the news that Dimitar Berbatov failed to trouble Alex and John Terry, even on the rare occasions that the ball did find its way into dangerous areas.

For Ferguson, however, the main talking point was the "poor, poor performance" of the match officials. He's absolutely right to question linesman Simon Beck, who failed to spot that Drogba was a good yard offside in scoring Chelsea's second goal. But Ferguson's arm-flapping, huffing and puffing about that decision and a Ji-Sung Park penalty appeal looks imprudent at best. Consider that the same officials failed to award Chelsea a first-half penalty after Gary Neville bulldozed Anelka off the ball as he shaped to shoot, and allowed Macheda's goal to stand despite the fact that his arm had an awful lot to do with the ball finding the back of the net. Chelsea deserved its win, regardless of Ferguson's distraction with refereeing debates.

Ferguson could learn a thing or two from Wolves manager Mick McCarthy -- not something that gets said very often -- who has dealt with the trials and tribulations of a first season back in the Premiership with considerable good humor. McCarthy's side was beaten by a 95th-minute goal from Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner on Saturday, and had captain Karl Henry harshly sent off.

The decision didn't go down too well with McCarthy, who had been enjoying watching his team defend stoutly to keep the Gunners at bay, but he knew better than to waste time and energy lambasting the officials in front of the waiting television crews.

"They've dominated the game, but to lose it in the last minute is bitterly disappointing," he said. "What I really feel bitter about is that I'm losing my skipper for three games and I shouldn't be. But, uh, hey ho."

The odds are fairly long on getting a hey-ho out of Sir Alex before the season's end.

Such is the climb from the English League Championship to the Premiership that the only thing Birmingham City was being tipped for at the start of the season was a tumble straight back down. But with 46 points, Birmingham is comfortably safe in ninth spot, and having tied visiting Liverpool on Sunday afternoon, they've banked six of those points at home in draws with the top-six clubs this season.

Alex McLeish's side has established a reputation for scuppering even the highest of hopes at St Andrews, with only Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers leaving victorious this season -- and only then thanks to late goals. The default explanation looks much the same as those proffered when Stoke City or Burnley pinch points from "better" sides: Birmingham players dig in and get bodies between the visitors and the goal, at the expense of playing much football themselves. And, though Birmingham's defenders have thrown themselves in front of an abundance of shots from the top six (13 against Manchester United alone) its defense deserves slightly more cultured praise.

Every visitor from the top six has struggled to get the ball into the box from wide areas: Manchester City fared the worst with one successful cross in 26 attempts, with Chelsea managing only four in 26 and Manchester United eight in 32. The central pairing of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, brought in from Coventry and Cardiff City, respectively, have proved an absolute bargain at a combined $12 million, and it's no coincidence that they were not alongside one another in those home defeats to Villa and Bolton. Behind them, Joe Hart has looked every inch an England goalkeeper, stopping shots no matter how improbable the flight and claiming aerial balls with confidence.

Birmingham can look narrow at times, without natural wingers and with James McFadden playing up with Cameron Jerome rather than on the left, but fullbacks Stephen Carr and Liam Ridgewell are devoted to shielding the width of the final third and, as Ridgewell proved with another equalizer against Liverpool, can provide attacking outlets too.

It's a shame for Birmingham that three of its remaining five matches are on the road, but the upcoming visits of Hull City and Burnley make for a promising end to the season in front of its fans.

Wolves may have been undone by a last-gasp header from Bendtner, but Marcus Hahnemann will still be hoping U.S. coach Bob Bradley was watching the game. The keeper was left exposed as Arsenal swarmed forward, enjoying plenty of time and space on the right side, but made fine saves against Eduardo, Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott in the first half, before twice denying Tomas Rosicky in the second.

Aston Villa's Brad Friedel impressed with a superb reflex save from Tamir Cohen's scorcher as Villa beat Bolton 1-0. Everton's Tim Howard summoned the spirit of Bruce Grobbelaar to put Mido off his stride as he faced, and saved, the West Ham striker's penalty in Everton's 2-2 draw. However, it was a match West Ham defender Jonathan Spector probably won't want to watch again, after his poor clearances twice invited Everton back into the box to score.

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