MANCHESTER – When Robin van Persie’s shot hit the back of the net at the Stretford End on Sunday in the 94th minute, the sense of relief around Old Trafford was palpable.
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Under the lights and in front of a packed house of over 75,000, Manchester United had pegged back the league-leaders Chelsea in the most dramatic fashion.
Louis van Gaal’s side may have been second best on Sunday in the second half, but they played well in stages of the first half and their fighting spirit shone through to grab them a point. As van Gaal’s revolution continues to gather steam in Manchester, the spirit they showed late in the game to snatch a point from the jaws of defeat will be a key ingredient.
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Looking at the stats: United outshot Chelsea 19-9, had seven shots on target to Chelsea’s four and had 51 percent of the possession. Their fans were at times frustrated as David De Gea (so far this season, United’s best player) was forced to make two terrific stops in either half from Didier Drogba and Eden Hazard, then several giveaways in front of their defense put the Red Devils on the back foot. Poor marking allowed Drogba to put Chelsea 1-0 up, but United hung on to set themselves up for a dramatic finale.
After the game Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal was slightly disappointed to only grab a point. That says it all.
“I’ve said to the players we could have won but nevertheless we didn’t and that’s our fault,” Van Gaal said. “When you can do that against the best team in this league at this moment it is a good sign. I’m not pleased as I still have the feeling we could have won today and that we don’t take our opportunities at the moment.”
Asked by reporters if nicking a point against Chelsea was his teams best performance of the season, van Gaal was adamant that there’s room for improvement and his side are capable of much more.
“No, I’ve said to the boys it was not our best performance,” van Gaal said. “That is a pity because at this moment you have to show yourself against the better teams. Despite that, we have created a lot of chances. Much more than Chelsea. Chelsea has created once chance in the first half, then before the goal Hazard had the chance which De Gea stopped fantastically. With the corner kick [which led to Drogba’s goal] it was a lack of communication, that’s why they scored. That’s always the difference in such games. After that we lost our heads for 15 minutes.”
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Despite that slack spell after conceding, United steadied the ship and van Gaal was pleased his team never gave up. United are currently in eighth place, with 13 points from their opening nine games. That’s not a great deal better than United’s start under David Moyes last season but the signs of cohesion from LVG’s men is promising.
“We are playing as a team. We showed the fighting spirit for the second time,” van Gaal added. “Against West Bromwich Albion we created a lot of chances we didn’t finish well. We could have finished the game before half time and they scored and then you know Chelsea is the best club in Europe who can kill the game… My boys they ran, fought until the end and at the end we scored. At the end we scored, and I think it was very deserved.”
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What about the confidence United may get from this this late point against the runaway league leaders? With the Manchester derby coming up on Nov. 2, van Gaal was asked if this result will give his players a boost before the clash with Manchester City.
“You cannot predict that but I am a crazy coach that I said to the players after the match, I said to them you have to play your best game against the best teams,” van Gaal said. “We didn’t do that today, we could have won and that is a pity. They are fighting until the end as a team. I have seen the commentary on television and they were very positive about Manchester United. Okay, good.”
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As for van Gaal’s former assistant Jose Mourinho, (the duo worked together at FC Barcelona and remain close friends) Chelsea’s manager was asked if United are heading in the right direction under LVG.
Mourinho believes his old friend has United heading in the right direction.
“They [Manchester United] have one of the best managers in the world,” Mourinho said of van Gaal. “He is one of that group. He is a great coach, a great manager. They are in great hands. In the same way I had last year to build, obviously I need more but I don’t think I am lucky to have five, ten or fifteen years to build, so I need to buid quick. But Louis, with time, will make a fantastic team.”
United and van Gaal are getting there, slowly but surely. Being disappointed after a 1-1 draw at home to all-conquering Chelsea proves that.