It’s now 22 games and counting. If only so many of those weren’t draws…
It’s Easter and Judas is Number One. Again. On a Sunday afternoon, the man unanimously cast out of Stamford Bridge sixteen months ago has came out on top. His new team might have had a history of twelve games against The Blues without a single victory – it didn’t matter. He might’ve been faced with the challenge to decipher the roots of a 0-4 defeat earlier this season – it didn’t matter. The circumstances might’ve forced him to drop tired Zlatan Ibrahimović, injured Juan Mata and in-form Henrikh Mkhitaryan as well – it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, the game has turned out as one-sided as it can possibly get against the Premier League leaders.
Zero shots on target. Zilch. None. For the first time in ten years, Roman Abramovich’s lads haven’t even got a sniff. Diego Costa, the terrifying Diego Costa we’ve all watched and revered during the first half of the season, crashed and burned against equally relentless Marcos Rojo. The Brazilian with Spanish passport has picked up a booking in the 33rd minute, still before firing his first shot – and that missed shot has turned out to be his only one. Until the half-hour mark, the only passes he’d complete would be those two from the central spot! Already at the half-time, the team was begging for him to be subbed off. Antonio Conte disagreed and his 17-goal man remained anonymous right until the end.
If that absent-minded 90 minutes were disappointing, the same stint put in by Eden Hazard was straight-up shocking. The FPA Player of the Year nominee, the main candidate to pick up all possible individual accolades has been reduced to Wayne Routledge’s status. This year, the Belgian winger has already punished the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City; a week ago, he’s been CFC’s driving force in a confident, 3-1 win at Bournemouth. On Sunday: zero shots. Zero dribbles won. A single key pass (in the second half, leading only to winning a corner). Bullied all over the pitch, right from the get-go. On Sunday, he was at his worst since the infamous, bottled, 2016/17 campaign.
It all happened by the grace and mercy of a player who’ll probably miss out on any awards. Ander Herrera has been hands down the best defensive midfielder this season and he’s further proven it yesterday, when his perfectly weighed pass reached Marcus Rashford and the youngster has put it away. It was a blatant handball action by the Basque, but he’s not there to make the referee’s calls. Besides – his contribution to the run of play certainly did not end after 7 minutes. The lad spent the rest of his shift chasing Eden Hazard like a shadow, taking a sting out of Chelsea’s attacking ideas before they’d even start to unfold. The lucky, deflected goal he’d bag was just a cherry on the top of his monumental effort.
Let’s not forget: it’s Ander, who’s always had it uphill at Old Trafford. Signed in June 2014, he’d immediately run into a fierce starting XI competition, as Louis van Gaal opted to hire Daley Blind on a deadline day. A year later, despite several good games in MUFC shirt, the ex-Bilbao stalwart was expected to be done when his club poached both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. It’s now April 2017; Blind is making occasional appearances as a left-back; the ‘Sch-Sch’ duo got tired of warming benches and moved on to some other places. Meanwhile, Herrera is still standing. Standing? It’s actually him – not Pogba, Zlatan or De Gea – who gets his name first on the team sheet.
Still: he wasn’t the only outcast to get his moment of glory. Ashley Young, used mostly as the second-rate cup competition asset, ran his socks off, fully earning the captain’s armband he’s been handed for this match. Matteo Darmian, known mostly for collecting yellow cards and being rumored to leave Old Trafford soon, had no problem locking up the left flank as he completed five tackles, two interceptions, two clearances and did not commit a single foul. Marouane Fellaini, after months of being ridiculed for mediocre performances against small sides, has completely neutralized the impact of Nemanja Matić. Worth noting: in October, during the Stamford Bridge disaster, those three players had the combined playtime of just 46 minutes.
All MU underdogs in one picture. With Marcus Rashford on the side.
Of course, the final result wasn’t just the product of blood, sweat and tears from a refined United side. They’ve received some unexpected help last Tuesday, when Thibaut Courtois was shooting a commercial for NBA. Although no one at Chelsea dared to confirm that, it’s been suspected that the ankle injury he’s recently sustained was a direct result of that promotional, basketball endeavor. To make things even more complicated, Marcos Alonso has succumbed to a virus on a Saturday night and, despite being tipped for the starting XI, he’s finally been withdrawn from the match altogether. With Kurt Zouma lacking match fitness and Azpilicueta in an unfamiliar position, the visitors’ chances have shrunk drastically.
This time around, The Blues needed something more than just N’Golo Kanté being up to his usual game. The Frenchman passed with 92% accuracy, won five tackles and made seven interceptions, leaving the long-lasting midfield feud with Paul Pogba still very much decided in his favor. What disappointed the most was the visitors’ lack of influence down the wings, where Victor Moses (only 29 touches; the least of all 22 starters on Sunday) and Azpi (no dribbles or tackles won; only 78% pass accuracy) have been reduced to chasing shadows of Valencia and Young. In fact, apart from Kanté, only Gary Cahill was on his usual level, winning eight tackles and three interceptions as well as wasting only five out of 46 passes he’s attempted. That’s two players against eleven; it’s hard to pull the result off like that.
Antonio Conte is no fool but once again, he’s been unable to reverse the flow of a match in which his team would ship the first goal. Just like against Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, his plan B of bringing a back-up winger (in the past: Pedro, now: Willian) and Cesc Fàbregas did not work at all. Neither did the half-time team talk – in all four, aforementioned games, Chelsea have only managed to score a single goal after the breaks. Pushed back into their own half, the visitors’ subs have been forced to graft hard in the middle of the park, instead of making things happen in the final third. Final effect? The third CFC’s goalless game out of 39 competitive ones they’ve tackled this season.
Fortunately for the Italian boss, the remaining six fixtures are very kind to his players. Even taking their congestion in the account, it’s hard to expect anything but three points from the home matches against Southampton, Boro, Watford and Sunderland. That just leaves the visits at Hawthorns and Goodison Park as two potential sources of grief. Still: even if Ronald Koeman teams up with Tony Pulis to beat The Blues two more times, it would take an absolutely flawless finish from Spurs to overturn the 4-point deficit. This means that Pochettino & Co. would not only have to win their first North London derby since 2015 – they’d also be forced to crush Man United’s current, 22-game triumphant streak.
It is not going to happen. What can happen, though, is United’s persistent march to the third place. Their calendar is as difficult as it gets, with five (!) out of seven remaining games being played away from home and three of those coming up against Man City, Spurs and Arsenal. Should the team advance to Europa League’s final, it would mean no less than eleven matches scheduled for them in thirty seven days. It’s obviously a bit of madness – madness The Special One did not forget to criticize a couple of times in the past – but, on the other hand, TSO also has a record of handling such strains well. Beating Chelsea while saving Ibrahmović’s and Mkhitaryan’s legs – that’s already an invaluable asset to have.
“With Liverpool and Manchester City victories, if we don’t win today… goodbye, Premier League.” In the press conference, Mourinho was even more outspoken than usual, pointing out that figuring out the opponent’s system was the main reason of his victory: “We knew (…) that controlling the two players that play behind Diego (Costa) – sometimes Hazard-Willian, sometimes Hazard-Pedro – controlling the position of these two players and controlling the full-backs (…) would create them lots of problems.” He also denied his personal motivation for the match: “They’re named Chelsea, but they could be named Arsenal. Or Tottenham. Or… another one. It’s the leader.” Well said, boss. Very well said.
But you’re not fooling anyone. The team you’ve just defeated is the team that played against you and caused you your favorite job in London. And the gesture of pointing to United’s crest on your jacket says more than any words you’re ever going to utter about this match.