Premier League Playback: Manchester United prove they can challenge Chelsea for the title

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UNITED IMPRESS, READY THEMSELVES FOR ’15-16 TITLE CHARGE

Without four key players on Saturday, Manchester United gave runaway Premier League leaders Chelsea a fright as Louis van Gaal’s men dominated vast swathes of the match but succumbed to a moment of magic from Eden Hazard, a Jose Mourinho defensive masterclass and were made to rue missed chances.

[ RELATED: Three things we learned ]

Despite the defeat, LVG was delighted with his teams display as their resurgence continues following six-straight wins before the loss in west London.

“I am not frustrated, I am very proud of my team,” van Gaal said. “We played the best match of the season but in football you can lose. In spite of [the fact] that you are the better team.”

United were without their rhythmic veteran Michael Carrick in midfield, plus Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo at the back as Chelsea sat back, soaked up their pressure and a moment of brilliance from Oscar and Hazard in the first half turned out to be pivotal.

“We are in a process and I see my team always growing and improving every week,” van Gaal added. “It is amazing how we have played here. When you see the statistics it is unbelievable that the result is 1-0. But that is football.”

[ RELATED: Mourinho – We had United’s stars “in our back pockets” ]

So, LVG was impressed with how his squad played but are United ready to mount a challenge for the Premier League title next season? Mourinho claims that he set up Chelsea to sit back and that they had United’s star players “in our pockets” but is there a sense of panic coming from west London that the Red Devils are figuring things out and clicking into a team who can push Chelsea all the way for the PL title next season?

[ RELATED: LVG happy despite defeat, hails “best match of season” ]

I think so. In the buildup to Chelsea’s narrow win over United, Mourinho was asked about UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules and how that impacts his side. He said it gives teams like United an edge and that it is easier to manage United rather than Chelsea, given the amount of extra cash they can generate from ticket sales and various commercial activities around the globe.

“Yes, it’s easier,” Mourinho said. “It was easier before at Chelsea, but it’s more fun like this. More difficult of course. We sold a lot of players, not just Juan [Mata]. Their squad is amazing in terms of numbers, players, experience, solutions. I have on the big screen in my office, not the team I’m going to play against but the squad and all the options. This week, when I arrived in the room, for the first time, I realized what they have. I’m not saying it’s the best squad. It’s a very good squad. I went to QPR with Didier Drogba and no strikers on the bench and, for a long time we were in trouble. You have to cope.”

Regardless of Mourinho’s mind games and praise for United, he once again proved he’s the best in the business at setting his side up to defend and get a big win. Against his old master (Mourinho served as LVG’s assistant at Barcelona from 1997-2000) he outwitted LVG and nullified the threat of Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, forcing both players wide to pick up the ball, with the Blues now needing just two wins and two draws from their final six games to clinch the 2014-15 PL title. It was a masterclass in forcing players out of areas where they could hurt you, as Radamel Falcao hit the post and had another shot blocked but that was as close as United got.

[ RELATED: United can challenge Chelsea next season ]

Van Gaal believes his boys are on an upward curve and if he can add key players in defense, keep hold of David De Gea in goal and bring in more attacking firepower in Memphis Depay and others in the summer, we are going to have a titanic battle between United, Chelsea, Arsenal and perhaps a revamped Manchester City side for the title next season.

“In spite of the compact defensive organization of Chelsea, we have created more chances in the second half. That is unbelievable performance, I think. But you need to score. Normally we are more effective and normally we are not so creative and because of that I think we played a fantastic match but we lost,” van Gaal added. “Now I have very disappointed players and I am very disappointed but I see that we are improving every week and when you can play at Chelsea, like this, as the dominant team. Then I am very happy with that but I am disappointed [with the defeat]. That is the ambivalence in my feelings.”

Premier League Schedule – Week 33

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 1-0 Man United Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 WBA Recap and watch here
Everton 1-0 Burnley Recap and watch here
Leicester 2-0 Swansea Recap and watch here
Man City 2-0 West Ham Recap and watch here
Newcastle 1-3 Tottenham Recap and watch here
Stoke 2-1 Saints Recap and watch here

GOAL-SHY BURNLEY MUST GO FOR  IT

Following their 1-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday, Burnley dropped to the bottom of the Premier League table for the first time since Nov. 1 as the chances of the Clarets extending their stay in the big-time beyond one season is looking increasingly dodgy.

[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]

Sean Dyche’s side have only scored one goal in their last seven matches and despite their resolute defensive displays, their touch in front of goal let them down against the Toffees at Goodison. Granted their task was made tougher after Ashley Barnes was sent off before half time, but David Jones and Danny Ings both had glorious chances which they squandered and they have now gone 389 minutes without scoring.

The Clarets have only lost a game by more than two goals on two occasions this season (a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in November and a 4-0 loss at West Brom in September) as they’ve been compact, hard to break down and disciplined. However as the stat below suggests, they just have to score a goal a game to get at least a point as the odd defensive mistake here and there (a poor pass at home against Arsenal last week and failure to track a run against Everton this week) is punished ruthlessly in the PL.

Defending for your lives every single game only gets you so far. Dyche’s boys have to throw caution to the wind as they face relegation candidates Leicester City, Hull City and Aston Villa, plus struggling West Ham and Stoke City in the final five games of they season. All five are winnable.

[ RELATED: Latest PL standings ]

Burnley may get beat 4-1 or 5-2 in some of their final games of the season but now is the time to go for it. What have they got to lose? It may seem something like preparing a perfectly scripted speech and then when entering the final two paragraphs you toss it over your shoulder and speak from the heart. But that’s what Burnley must do. On a recent trip to the Lancashire town it became apparent to me that the citizens bleed claret and blue and are desperate for their team to stay up. Playing a conservative brand of soccer has so far helped them grind out results and put them in a position to be within four points of safety (given their poor goal difference). At the start of the season  not many would have given Burnley a chance to be within touching distance of safety with five games to go. They are, and now they  must go for it and play 4-3-3 or 4-2-4 or whatever they have to do in order to bring some attacking impetus to their matches.

They have already surpassed the expectations of many of their fans by hanging in there. Now is the time to put their foot to the floor and hope for the best as goals and momentum means everything at this time of the season.

FLIP FLOPS ON – WEST HAM, NEWCASTLE

With just one win in their last 11 matches, it’s safe to say West Ham United are finishing the season on a downward spiral. That is perhaps what happens when the future of manager Sam Allardyce is still unknown with his current contract running out at the end of the season and no talks being held with the Hammers’ owners about a new deal.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

It is also indicative of the Hammers’ form dropping off midway through the season after they sat in the top four in late December after beating Leicester City at home. With Andy Carroll back fit and scoring goals, plus new additions Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho causing all kinds of problems, there was a real sense that West Ham could achieve something special this season. Instead they have plummeted down the table with five defeats from their last seven and “Big Sam’s” boys already seem to be wistfully dreaming about frolicking on a far-flung beach at the end of the season and grabbing their flip flops out of the bottom draw of their dresser. In their 2-0 defeat to Manchester City on Sunday, the Hammers only showed a few glimpses of attacking intent late in the game as they stood back, let City pass the ball around them and gave them copious amounts of space. During the first 15 minutes of the second half, City had over 81 percent of possession. It wasn’t good enough and depicted what will likely be a shameful end to a 2014-15 season which promised so much up until the halfway point.

[ RELATED: Premier League schedule ]

Talking about shameful, the way Newcastle United’s season is going, the distraught Magpies fans could be witnessing their side in a relegation battle. Since Alan Pardew jumped ship for Crystal Palace in January they have won just twice in 14 games since and interim manager John Carver has now seen his side lose six-straight amid plenty of empty seats at St James’ Park on Sunday. After countless protests against owner Mike Ashley over the years, Newcastle’s fans are at it again as banners saying “Ashley Out” were plastered everywhere around St James and the streets of Newcastle on the weekend. Fans have had enough of the lack of spending on new players and constant selling of the Magpies’ top talents (see Yohan Cabaye, Matheiu Debuchy, Demba Ba et al.) by Ashley and his board. Now they are choosing to hurt the owner the only way they can: by not turning up and putting money into his pocket, the vilified owner of their beloved club.

Soccer is a religion to fans of Newcastle and St James’ is their cathedral of worship. It will pain them to stay away but until Ashley sells up and puts the club in the hands of someone who is willing to invest money instead of making money, then many Magpies fans will not return to the third-largest stadium in the Premier League. In the video below our analysts discuss if Newcastle are in a relegation battle following their lackluster 3-1 defeat to Tottenham on Sunday which leaves them seven points above the drop zone but they have played one more game teams around them.

Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here