Manchester United fans would have been conscious when Real Madrid and Bayern Munich uncorked the champagne on Sunday evening. For the bubbly at Old Trafford to stay in ice, a resurgent Chelsea needed to take points off a visit to Newcastle. Resurgent, I say, because goals in last five minutes (vs Liverpool at CL semis Anfield and vs Manchester United in EPL) had kept them in hunt for the double.
Avram Grant will overachieve, in many eyes, if he does what Mourinho failed to do – get a long awaited CL trophy to Stamford Bridge. United with a massive goal difference, will prevail if it comes to that. Yet Chelsea needed to win at St. James Park to keep pressure on Sir Alex’s boys and not give away brownie points before the Moscow showdown.
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle had strung in an unbeaten six match streak going into this penultimate round of matches, a big turnaround since the time Sam Allardyce passed the baton.
The lack of sunshine didn’t forbid the home team from making hay as Michael Owen missed two clear chances in the first half. In between, diminutive ex-Inter Milan striker, Obafemi Martins was dazzling the home crowds with his promising pacy runs and dribble.
Chelsea had their first sniff of goal on the 35th minute as Essien sent Ballack clear on the left, inside the box, who took an extra touch, made the angle more acute, only to fire wide. The Magpies gave no free lunches, defending stoutly, lead by the outstanding Faye. The home crowds loved as the defenders, at times, got into confident short passes while weaving out of sticky situations.
Chelsea dominated possession from the second half kick off. Carvalho headed wide off a corner, Ballack shot wide from the centre and a John Terry header, off another corner, crashed against the bar.
Yet with no goals and two thirds of the match gone, the Chelsea supporters started gazing edgily towards Lampard and Cole, warming on the sidelines. On the 61st minute, Faye fouled Malouda outside the box and earned a yellow card. Drogba stuttered in his free kick, but looped the ball enough to find Ballack’s head enroute to the far post. It was a deserved goal for the constant pressure applied – one could almost see it coming.
Newcastle instantly rallied. Martins took a shot from the edge of the box which sailed just wide; next minute Michael Owen beat the offside trap but failed to connect, with the goal gaping at him.
As they pressed forward in the 82nd minute, off a counter attack, Lampard passed onto the unmarked Malouda, who shut out all hopes of the home supporters with a neat finish. The bottles at Old Trafford started hitting the ice back, as Avram Grant displayed a rare smile.
Amongst the vocal home crowd, was a silent lady, all of 100 years young, who had spent 94 of those years supporting the Magpies. She silently trudged home, disappointed, but aware that the title race would now go down to the wire, to the last day, to possibly the last minute, to possibly the last kick.