The Red Devils were forced to defend for much of the night but they did their attacking when it counted and took the win after Wayne Rooney finished a lovely move that involved Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs in the 24th minute to score for the fifth year in a row at this stage of the competition.
After the goal, Chelsea dominated large portions of the match but were unable to pierce a resilient United defence who were extremely lucky not to concede a penalty in injury time when Patrice Evra brought down Ramires.
But nonetheless, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men came to London to do a job and that they did to put one foot in the semi-finals as Chelsea prepare themselves for the return leg at United’s fortress, Old Trafford, on Tuesday night.
Venue: Stamford Bridge, London
Referee: Alberto Undiano
Yellow cards: CHE - Yuri Zhirkov 36’, Ramires 60’, Michael Essien 60’, Fernando Torres 90+3’
MANU - Nemanja Vidic 74’, Edwin van der Sar 80’
Chelsea were the more productive of the sides in the opening 10 or so minutes with plenty of supply coming down the right-hand side through Ramires and a few half-chances coming to Fernando Torres who started up front alongside Didier Drogba.
United slowly worked their way into the contest but it was the home side who had the best early chance when Drogba found space in the area in the 20th minute after a nice move involving Frank Lampard and Ramires but the Ivory Coast star’s thunderous striker was directed straight at Edwin van der Sar who was able to knock it out for a corner.
GOAL However, four minutes later the visitors hit the front through the man in the headlines, Wayne Rooney. He received a pass on a plate from the irrepressible Ryan Giggs who had taken a superb touch on the left flank from a long Michael Carrick before advancing into the area and cutting back for Rooney who side-footed it past Petr Cech and in off the far post to open the scoring.
Chelsea regained control after the opener and again went on the attack but Rooney had other ideas and around the 40th minute he produced a neat piece of individual play after receiving a long ball from Antonio Valencia but his floated cross to striker partner Javier Hernandez was slightly too heavy.
United had a period where they peppered the Chelsea penalty area before the Blues somehow missed out on two chances to score just before the half-time whistle. Firstly, Drogba played a little ball to Torres who may have got a whisker on it only to see it bobble onto the upright, beating van der Sar, but Lampard’s follow-up was cleared off the line by Patrice Evra as the visitors went into the break lucky not to have conceded.
Early in the second half, Drogba provided a dangerous ball for Ramires but the Brazilian could not get his head to it as another chance went begging just before United right-back Rafael was subbed off following his clash with Drogba earlier. Sir Alex Ferguson used Nani as his replacement, deploying him on a wing and putting Antonio Valencia in the back four.
Down the other end in the 67th minute, Chelsea escaped by the skin of their teeth when Nani’s lovely ball from the right was directed at Javier Hernandez but Petr Cech intervened at the right moment to deny the visitors a second goal.
With about 20 minutes remaining, Michael Essien came close with a volley from long range before Carlo Ancelotti made a double change, bringing on Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka for Yuri Zhirkov and Drogba, as he chased a result.
Torres’ 74th minute header from a Jose Bosingwa cross was looking like it would sneak in at the front post but van der Sar produced an acrobatic save, using his finger tips to claw the ball away as the Blues continued to ask questions of Manchester’s defence.
With just under ten minutes left, Lampard struck goalward after a free-kick was played in his path but van der Sar was perfectly positioned to make the stop before Anelka had a few half chances as United tried to hold strong and get out of London with a vital away goal and a clean sheet which they eventually managed to do after four minutes of injury time and a late penalty call against Evra on Ramires.
Petr Cech (gk) – Jose Bosingwa (Mikel 78’), John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole – Ramires, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Yuri Zhirkov (Malouda 70’) – Didier Drogba (Anelka 71’), Fernando Torres
Edwin van der Sar (gk) – Rafael (Nani 51’), Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra – Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-sung, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs – Javier Hernandez (Berbatov 78’), Wayne Rooney