If England's Community Shield is anything to go by then the new Premier League season is going to be more fiery, controversial and exciting than ever before.
Curtain well and truly raised by Chelsea and United
LONDON // If England's Community Shield, designed as a friendly curtain raiser to the season to drum up money for charity, is anything to go by then the new Premier League season is going to be more fiery, controversial and exciting than ever before.
The match between champions Manchester United and FA Cup holders Chelsea produced drama galore as the Londoners won it 4-1 on penalties following a 2-2 draw in which Wayne Rooney equalised for United in injury time. But the real story came when Frank Lampard scored for Carlo Ancelotti's side to put his team 2-1 up while a United player was lying injured in the other half. Furious United players complained bitterly to referee Chris Foy as Patrice Evra was left prone in a challenge by substitute Michael Ballack, but Chelsea played on through Didier Drogba, who set up Lampard to shoot home in the 70th minute.
The goal sealed a typical comeback from Chelsea who had gone 1-0 down in the first half to a wonderful strike from Nani, who later went off injured, but equalised after the break through Ricardo Carvalho. But that is likely to be forgotten in the controversy, not least because television replays appeared to show Evra was felled by a forearm smash from Ballack with the midfielder escaping any kind of punishment.
There was a second flashpoint, too, when Evra went in for a revenge tackle on Ballack minutes later, only to be booked for his recklessness - which did not go down too well with his United teammates who once again surrounded referee Foy in anger. Then, after Rooney had raced on to a Ryan Giggs pass to score in the 90th minute, United were suffering again when Evra, of all people, was one of the players to miss in the shoot-out while Ballack scored. And when Salamon Kalou's successful penalty clinched Ancelotti's first silverware you could feel the conspiracy theories forming in Manchester.
So much for the English FA's Respect Campaign, put under pressure a week before the season has even started. But there was an added spice to this match following a summer of changes both at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford. What Chelsea fans wanted to discover was how their team would play under new manager Ancelotti. And what United wanted was to analyse was whether the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid and Carlos Tevez to Manchester City would destabilise the champions. Both sets of supporters were given answers of sorts, although the only certainty is that the title race will be as fiercely contested as ever.
For the FA Cup holders Ancelotti unveiled his favoured diamond formation in midfield which saw Mikel John Obi at the base, Florent Malouda and Michael Essien in the middle and Frank Lampard at the tip. It meant there was no room for Ballack, but allowed Drogba and Nicolas Anelka to play together up front, as they have been campaigning to do since the latter arrived from Bolton in January 2008. It looked messy at times, but Chelsea's character was enough to overcome early teething problems and the same is true of United.
They showed no real signs of missing Ronaldo, especially in the first half when they took the lead and looked dominant and at least Rooney is now guaranteed a central role alongside Dimitar Berbatov, a factor which could eventually outweigh Ronaldo's absence. They were also able to call on Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, Giggs and Paul Scholes from the bench showing that their squad is considerably deeper than at Stamford Bridge.
United went ahead with a wonderful goal from Nani, who cut inside past two players and then unleashed a swerving shot past Petr Cech's left hand and into the net and they could have run away with it before half-time had it not been for the Czech keeper who saved from Park-Ji Sung, Berbatov and Darren Fletcher. But, as has been the case in many meetings between these two sides, Chelsea grew stronger and more determined in the second half and equalised after 52 minutes. It was something of a gift from goalkeeper Ben Foster, who will be deputising for Edwin van der Sar for at least two months while the Dutchman recovers from a broken finger, as he flapped at a Malouda cross and succeeded only in slapping Drogba rather than the ball - leaving Carvalho with a simple task of heading into an unguarded net.
Lampard grabbed his controversial goal after 70 minutes before Rooney equalised late on. When Giggs and Evra missed in the shoot-out, the shield was Chelsea's. Breathless, dramatic, controversial, enthralling. And this was just the warm-up act. firstname.lastname@example.org