Dormant, dull and sluggish – the drab production between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday ticked every definition of ‘stagnant’ in the English dictionary that could be used for describing the sordid state of these two clubs, two Premier League giants of the past decade.
While United needed a win at all costs to keep their hopes of UEFA Champions League qualification alive, Chelsea came into the game in a slightly better position – a loss not so catastrophic and a draw not so unfavourable, yet a win which could have done wonders. The hosts’ desperation for three points was prominent as United started the game with a spring in their step, showcasing arguably their finest first-half play in recent weeks, one of the strongest displays since Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s interim position was confirmed.
Chelsea offered more of the same – the promise of Sarriball long dissipated, the London club is simply a jarred machine going through its motions, devoid of ideas and inspiration. As former Chelsea man Juan Mata put the home side in lead at the eleventh minute, it seemed another long afternoon for the Italian and his project gone awry.
In United’s credit, they really threatened Kepa Arrizabalaga’s goal on a number of occasions in the first quarter with Romelu Lukaku, in particular, looking like a £75m centre forward. Playing in a slightly deeper role to Marcus Rashford, the Belgian surprised fans and critics alike with his delightful touches and clever passes to unlock Chelsea’s defence.
He almost scored the first goal of the night as he found his way behind the Chelsea backline with a smart run, only for a moment of hesitancy to take the opportunity away. It was Lukaku’s visionary pass to Luke Shaw which opened up the course to Mata’s goal as the Spaniard poached out an opening between three Chelsea defenders into a net unguarded by Arrizabalaga, who had himself occupied with Shaw.
Unlike previous seasons, when a goal from either club in a match of such importance would spur the other side to up their game, Chelsea merely trudged along. Eden Hazard had his momentary sparks of brilliance as he attempted everything from quick dribbles to clever flicks, but did not receive much support from the other Chelsea players. While Gonzalo Higuain was persistently offside throughout his time on the pitch, Mateo Kovacic simply made up numbers in the midfield without many purposes.
Chelsea never looked like scoring, not even on the occasions when United scrambled to get their defence in order, yet both teams went into the halftime with the scoreline level – courtesy a gaffe from an anxious David de Gea.
Anthony Rudiger attempted a hopeful shot from thirty yards which any keeper worth his mettle would collect easily. De Gea, instead, spilled the ball onto the path of a rushing Marcos Alonso who instinctively lobbed it into the net.
“He’s been in the spotlight for the right reasons for so long and now he’s going through a period where he feels he could have done better but, no, I don’t have any worries about him because he’s a strong character,” Solskjaer told reporters after the game.
This wasn’t De Gea's first major error in recent weeks, his indecisiveness and poor form costing the Red Devils against Everton and Manchester City as well. When asked whether De Gea's form is simply a blip or a contributing factor in a larger picture, the Norwegian clarified, “There are many different ways of getting back to your best performances and, of course, I’ll sit down and speak to David, as I’ve done when he’s played well. He’s not the reason we’re sixth.”
And sixth they are likely to be, come end of the season, with tiring Thursday night European football looking just around the corner. As far as European football is concerned, Chelsea may not be in as much of soup as United are, but they are teetering close enough.
Chelsea might just scrape through into the top-four courtesy all the mediocrity they are surrounded by, in the league table but they aren’t completely out of the woods yet; and they have nobody else to blame but themselves.
“If I look at the first 20 minutes I am very happy. If I look at the last minute when we had the best opportunity of the second half, I am not happy. But to play here in Manchester against United is very difficult for every team. They played very well in the first 20, 25 minutes. We were in trouble because we didn’t have the right distance between the striker and the midfielders. The ball was always free, and they are very dangerous when they can attack space behind the line. We were better in the last part of the first half and then the second half. We didn’t risk anything in the second half, only the corner in the last five minutes. We played very well in the second half,” Sarri exclaimed after the match but Chelsea fans would concur with critics that they were nowhere close to 'playing well' in any half.
In a season which was supposed to be a stepping stone for better ventures in future, Chelsea have only regressed further and further, so much that not only Sarri's future at the club is unsettled, a cloud of uncertainty looms over the entire functioning of the club, so much that a thorough do-over is necessary all across the hierarchy.
Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.
Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 14:22:48 IST