MANCHESTER — Manchester United and Jose Mourinho have thrown an almighty spanner into the works of the Premier League title race.
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Just when is seemed like Chelsea were gliding towards the title with a halfhearted charge from Tottenham Hotspur lingering in the background, now Antonio Conte‘s men have seen their lead cut to four points after a clinical and professional display from Mourinho’s United as they beat Chelsea for the first time since October 2012.
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An early goal in each half from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera did the damage as United are now unbeaten in 22 games in the PL, the longest unbeaten run in the five major European leagues.
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Here’s what we learned from Old Trafford on a pivotal day in the title race and top four battle.
HERRERA POCKETS HAZARD
It was clear from the very start what Ander Herrera’s job was: stop Eden Hazard. He did.
Lining up as a right back for most of the game, the man who was sent off when these teams met in the FA Cup in March at Stamford Bridge.
Herrera then showed his class on the ball (after he appeared to handle the ball to get the move going but got away with it) to thread through an inch-perfect pass to Rashford who raced past David Luiz and finished calmly and scored the killer second goal. From a man who is dubbed the master tactician around the globe, Mourinho got this spot on and his key antagonizer on the pitch was pivotal to this masterplan.
Mourinho, perhaps more than anybody else, realizes the strengths and weaknesses of Hazard. Hailing him as ready to join Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among the immortal players on the planet in 2014-15 when the Belgian wizard guided Chelsea to the title under Mourinho, the way in which Hazard struggled last season was a huge factor in Mourinho’s downfall at Stamford Bridge.
It seems like that hasn’t been forgotten as Herrera and Co. hacked Hazard to pieces in United’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat at Chelsea last month, prompting Conte to complain about the targeting of Hazard and saying “this is not football” for him. United did it again on Sunday.
Mourinho is demonized as the “king of anti-football” by most but when he pulls out unpredictable lineups and tactics like this, there are few that can do it better. He’s done it everywhere he’s gone and with United now four points off fourth-place Manchester City with a game in hand their top four hopes remain alive.
From Herrera on Hazard to playing two up front to occupy Chelsea’s back three and then bringing on Michael Carrick to deny Cesc Fabregas who came on as a sub, Mourinho got every single move in his chess game correct. The fact that he did it on Sunday to put a huge dent in Chelsea’s title bid, that’s something which will no doubt make him smirk slightly despite his obvious affinity with the west London club.
TITLE RACE BACK ON
With Chelsea’s second defeat in four games, the title race is well and truly back on.
The gap between second-place Tottenham Hotspur and leaders Chelsea is now just four points with six games remaining for each and Antonio Conte’s men can suddenly feel the pressure. Big time.
It seemed that way on Sunday.
For the first time, Chelsea are facing adversity as Thibaut Courtois went down injured in training this week, while Marcos Alonso hurt his knee in the warm up. Conte had to shuffle his pack with Kurt Zouma coming in and Cesar Azpilicueta moved to right-wing back and Chelsea looked cagey, especially in defense, as the team with the least changes in the PL this season.
During the game Chelsea switched things around to try and recover from a slow start with Victor Moses and Azpilicueta swapping flanks but all of a sudden those wings backs began to look like the square pegs in round holes many thought they were. For most of the season Chelsea have dodged adversity like the plague, with players over-performing and reinventing themselves.
The Blues are still in pole position with six games to go but the manner of their defeat at United, a game where they didn’t have a shot on target, suggests the nerves are starting to show.
When Chelsea face Spurs at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup semifinal next week there will be more than a place in the FA Cup final at stake.
The momentum is all with Tottenham (seven-straight PL wins) at this point of the season and psychologically Chelsea must respond. With a home game against Southampton and then a trip to Everton, who have won eight in a row at home, coming up in their next two PL outings, Chelsea fans will be feeling anxious no matter how much they sung “we’re top of the league” at Old Trafford to calm their nerves.
RASHFORD COMES OF AGE
It was just over 13 months ago that Marcus Rashford scored his first two goals in the Premier League in a rousing 3-2 win against Arsenal on a Sunday at Old Trafford.
Sometimes we forget just how quick his ascension has been but he gave one of the biggest indicators yet that he is much more than a flash in the pan.
In the past 13 months he’s signed a new contract, scored plenty of important goals for United’s first team, won an FA Cup and EFL Cup, plus went to EURO 2016 with England. It’s been a whirlwind for the 19-year-old and all the time he’s had to handle rising expectations levels as well as Mourinho cajoling him in the press and on the training ground.
He scuffed an early effort wide and nearly got on the end of Jesse Lingard‘s first half cross as his movement was sharp, his pace in-behind worried Chelsea the entire game and with Lingard up top alongside him he had someone to feed off of and had more space to work in. Rashford, who has been wasteful in front of goal in recent weeks, lashed another effort into the side-netting in the second half, plus surged past David Luiz and shrugged off two challenges before Begovic saved. It was his work rate, pace and directness which troubled Chelsea all game long and he got a standing ovation late on as Zlatan Ibrahimovic replaced him.
Ibrahimovic (on the bench for the visit of Chelsea) has stolen the headlines with his 28 goals for United in all competitions this season but his role in Rashford’s development must not be forgotten. Remember that when Rashford takes over Zlatan’s mantle for the next decade at Old Trafford.