Power, precision and poise – the unique rivalry that Manchester United and Chelsea have been embroiled in over the past two decades has often been characterised by match-winning displays from their centre-forwards.
A 2-1 win for Jose Mourinho’s side implied it was more of the same at the Old Trafford as the defending champions continued to flounder in the Premier League while Manchester United maintained their distinguished home record.
Manchester United started the game on back foot, still reeling from their midweek trip to Sevilla, while Chelsea, buoyed by their performance against Barcelona, took the game to Mourinho’s side, which had set up in a traditional 4-3-3 with Paul Pogba reclaiming his spot in the starting line-up. The visitors all but unshackled the chains at Old Trafford in the first quarter itself, when Alvaro Morata’s volley struck the bar.
That would be the Spaniard’s only meaningful contribution to Chelsea’s cause for the rest of the game, with Chelsea’s No 9 coming up short while the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian excelled in their respective roles. The Brazilian, in a terrific form off late, picked up from where he left off against Barcelona to give Chelsea the lead in the first half through a counter-attack orchestrated by Hazard after Victor Moses had robbed Pogba off the ball just outside Chelsea’s defensive third.
The goal, although spoiling Mourinho’s usual gameplan of stifling opposition play, woke Romelu Lukaku up from his slumber as the oft-criticised Belgian put in one of his best performances in the Manchester United shirt. Strong in the air and decisive in his passing, Lukaku was a stark yet refreshing contrast to the passive, subdued Morata. While Alexis Sanchez had yet another quiet night, much to the chagrin of the home support, Lukaku towered over Andreas Christensen and took advantage of the Chelsea backline’s only error in the first half to equalise for Manchester United.
Lukaku would go on to create United’s second for Jesse Lingard, who replaced Sanchez in the second half, down to his excellent spatial awareness and pinpoint crossing, yet it was his direct run taking on all three visiting central defenders while United were protecting their minuscule advantage, which got the Old Trafford crowd on their feet as a visibly enthusiastic Mourinho pumped fists on the touchline.
For all the criticism that has been levelled on the Portuguese manager due to the lack of success spite of his result-oriented brand of football, last night’s game was a near-perfect execution of Mourinho’s tactical system, which pleased the Red Devils boss.
“We start the game with three points difference with Chelsea and we could finish with the same points or six points difference and it was important for us to open that gap a little bit. I’m really happy, we had a great attitude too, it gives us a little more confidence,” Mourinho offered after the game.
As Manchester United reclaimed the second position in the league standings, Chelsea remained fifth, facing an increasingly difficult battle to surmount Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, both of which clubs are in excellent form, in the race for UEFA Champions League qualification.
Chelsea have won only two of their last seven league encounters scoring and conceding 11 goals apiece. Not only does that leave Antonio Conte’s men scrambling for a top-four finish amidst a difficult run during the business end of the season, it also stretches the already under-performing squad further thin as the Blues have to contend with a gruelling trip to Barcelona and the FA Cup quarter-finals in the next month.
Crisis talks have loomed around the club since the start of the season, the results convoluting matters for Conte, who once again struggled with his substitutions on Sunday – while the decision to not bring on Olivier Giroud for a clearly underwhelming Morata early in the second half was baffling, his choice to take off Hazard in the 72nd minute swung the tie in Manchester United’s favour.
Conte’s illustrious tactical acumen is uncontested, however, his decisions in terms of personnel have often invited discussions this season. While the London club is more likely to make a managerial change come end of the season, an incessant string of poor results could bring the proverbial sword down on Conte sooner than expected.
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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2018 09:39:06 IST