Sunday 25th February, Old Trafford – Manchester United played host to Chelsea in a huge top four battle today. It was the second meeting between the sides this season – Chelsea won the first clash at Stamford Bridge on the back of a towering Alvaro Morata header.
Both teams were desperate to get all three points. United were under intense pressure from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, and needed to return to second place; Chelsea were hoping to reclaim fourth place from Tottenham, who’d beaten Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park to knock their West London rivals down to fifth.
For a lot of the season, United and Chelsea had been second and third respectively in the premier league table. Recently though and despite signing reinforcements in the January transfer window, both teams had suffered dips in form that put those positions under threat.
The reds had lost two of their last five league games to Spurs and Newcastle United. The blues had also lost two to Watford and AFC Bournemouth, as well as drawing with Leicester City at Stamford Bridge.
Jose Mourinho returned £89m man Paul Pogba to the first team for today’s game. Pogba started alongside Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay in midfield. Anthony Martial replaced Juan Mata in the starting line-up, but Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were all out injured.
David Luiz, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley also missed this game through injury, but Alvaro Morata made his first Chelsea start since recovering from a back injury. Daniel Drinkwater replaced Cesc Fabregas in midfield, but those were the only two changes to the team that drew with Barcelona midweek in the Champions League.
Line-Ups & Ratings
De Gea 7.5, Valencia 6, Lindelof 7, Smalling 7, Young 6, McTominay 6.5, Matic 7, Pogba 6, Sanchez 7.5 (Bailly 6.5), Martial 8 (Lingard 8), Lukaku 8.5
Subs Pereira, Shaw, Bailly, Carrick, Lingard, Mata, Rashford
Courtois 7, Moses 5.5 (Giroud 6), Rudiger 6, Azpilicueta 6, Christensen 6.5, Alonso 6, Kante 7, Drinkwater 6 (Fabregas 6), Willian 8, Hazard 8 (Pedro 6), Morata 7
Subs Caballero, Zappacosta, Cahill, Emerson, Fabregas, Pedro, Giroud
Chelsea started the first half with far more energy and drive than United. They made quite a few opportunities for themselves before the home team got a grip and fully turned things around in the second half.
As early as the second minute, Antonio Rudiger broke up the pitch past McTominay. He got into a good position on the by-line but his cross into the penalty area was blocked back out again.
Marcos Alonso put another cross in a minute later, but Morata’s shot hit the bar. Eden Hazard got to the rebound and took another shot, but this time de Gea saved to put it out for a corner.
Half-way through the first period, Anthony Martial was able to dribble into the box and slide a cross in past Cesar Azpilicueta, but it was intercepted by Andreas Christensen.
Lukaku made a chance for himself just outside the six-yard box, but he was well marshalled by Rudiger and Alonso, and Courtois was able to make an easy save.
Martial dribbled in again on the left and put in another low cross. This time Alexis Sanchez got to it, but he slightly mis-controlled with his first touch and his final shot was weak, another easy save for Courtois.
Things seemed to be shifting slightly in United’s favour, but then on thirty-two minutes Willian latched onto a Hazard through ball on the counter-attack. He dribbled into the box from the right wing, could have squared to Morata, who was in space to his left in front of an empty net, but whipped it in past de Gea himself for 1 – 0.
Marcos Alonso cut in from the left wing a couple of minutes afterward and tried a shot, but it deflected off Lindelof and out for a corner.
And as has happened so many times this season, against Arsenal twice, Barcelona, now United, Chelsea conceded shortly after scoring a critical, potentially decisive goal themselves.
It was six minutes before half time and there didn’t seem to be that much danger at first. Sanchez had the ball on the edge of the area, but then he passed it forward quickly. Martial, who’d been a live wire so far, controlled under pressure from Rudiger and Azpilicueta and sent the ball sideways to Lukaku, who’d succeeded in slipping his marker to control the pass and finish into the bottom corner for a great equalizer 1 – 1.
A couple of minutes before half time, Willian bent in a free kick from the left wing. Morata made slight contact with the ball, but could not redirect into the net.
Chelsea had a couple of good chances on the counter early in the second half, but the decision making and attacking support was not as good as the opportunities required. Both Morata and Hazard dallied on the ball till the United defence got back in position to block out their shot (or pass).
Drinkwater attempted a shot from distance, and de Gea got down sharply to save. Sanchez orchestrated an amazing chance on sixty-six minutes; he crossed in from the left to Lukaku, who connected with a spectacular overhead kick which whizzed just over the bar.
Marcos Alonso took a free kick from far out on the left wing. He shot for the near post, almost deceiving de Gea, who was preparing for a cross to the far post.
Hazard came off for Pedro on seventy-two minutes. Maybe he’d taken a few knocks and needed a break, but it’s possible the loss of Chelsea’s biggest attacking threat had an influence on what happened next.
Just a couple of minutes after the substitution, Romelu Lukaku, who had drifted wide right, dribbled past Rudiger and put the perfect cross into the box. Jesse Lingard lost Christensen and got a completely free header into the net 2 – 1.
Lingard is on thirteen goals now in all competitions this season, United’s second top scorer after Lukaku. He’s developed quite the reputation for scoring big goals, and today’s winner was definitely one of them.
Chelsea made a few opportunities late in the game to try and find an equalizer of their own, but it was too little too late.
Errors Of Concentration
The media narrative in the run up to this game was a lot Mourinho versus Conte. Or Lukaku versus Morata, Sanchez versus Hazard, de Gea versus Courtois, but the managers showed during the game that they’d put their feuding behind them now.
At the end, the game wasn’t decided so much by individual battles, but by the team that was most committed, that wanted it more. The visitors were brutally punished for errors of concentration in defence, especially as both halves wore on. United delivered some pretty tough lessons to a Chelsea team in transition, but lessons they will have to learn nevertheless.
Final Score Manchester United 2 – 1 Chelsea
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Talk Sport
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