As Jose Mourinho masterminded a hugely impressive 2-0 victory over runaway leaders Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, many fans and experts began asking the same question:
Are Chelsea starting to fade off at a crucial point in the title race?
Well, after 2 defeats in their last 4 Premier League games, there is certainly evidence to suggest that there is meat on the bones of those claims. At Old Trafford, Conte’s men looked weary, slow to press and seemed to be out of ideas when the excellent Ander Herrera smashed home the second goal to send United clear in the game.
In Chelsea’s midfield – an area in which Conte is known to place a lot of importance on – the usual rock steady duo of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic were second best to almost everything for the whole 90 minutes. Mourinho brilliantly exploited the gaps in Chelsea’s midfield yesterday, with Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini looking far more up for the fight, despite United returning home from their Europa League fixture away to Belgian side Anderlecht on Friday morning. A special mention must also go to United striker Marcus Rashford, too – his pace and intelligent runs in behind Chelsea’s 3 centre halves caused issues all day and he took his goal brilliantly when 1v1 with stand-in Chelsea keeper Begovic in the first half. Whilst Zlatan is undoubtedly the main man at Old Trafford, Rashford is developing into a fantastic understudy – United and England fans should be encouraged by his progress this season.
It is fair to say that although Jose has not been at his brilliant best with Manchester United this season, throughout the years he has proven that he is amongst the very best anywhere in the world in preparing a team down to the very smallest of details, ensuring the side he picks are ready for any eventuality with what the opposition have over a full 90 minutes. Sunday underlined and strengthened Jose’s reputation and there is very little doubt that they will be right up there challenging for the league title and other trophies next season.
Perhaps more noticeable than anything else was how well United kept Chelsea’s danger men Eden Hazard and Diego Costa out of the game. With no goals in 5 League games now, Costa’s lack of goals could not have come at a worse time – especially with a visit to Wembley to face Pochettino’s flying Spurs side up next. At times this season, Hazard has been the difference for the Blues and is many people’s pick for footballer of the season, but found it tough against Ander Herrera in United’s midfield, who man marked him out of the game superbly. Whether he tried to drift inside, or come deep to receive the ball, everything the Belgian tried did not come off, leading to some frustrated gasps and moans from him in the second half. Gary Neville on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football Criticised Hazard, saying if he wants to become one of the best players in the world, he will have to come up with a way of learning how to escape his marker – giving examples of how Lionel Messi does it week in, week out.
Usually full of energy and passion, Conte himself looked defeated and worried at times on Sunday. His 3-4-3 formation which has served him so well in his debut Premier League season seems to have been found out in recent weeks and there seemed to be very little tactical tinkering which took place on the Chelsea bench to counteract the tactics which United boss Mourinho opted for during the game.
Whilst Chelsea’s run-in is far easier (on paper) than Spurs’ in the League – with only Everton the real tricky looking fixture remaining for Chelsea, the recent defeats to Crystal Palace and now Manchester United has given Spurs the momentum and with the lead now cut from 10 points to 4 in a matter of weeks, fans would be foolish to think the Premier League trophy is heading to Stamford Bridge in May just yet.
Roll on Saturday. The decider.