Manchester United's pragmatic display leaves Chelsea rattled and restless with Tottenham closing in

Tim Rich
The Independent
Conte has seen his side's 13-point lead gradually decrease: Getty
Conte has seen his side's 13-point lead gradually decrease: Getty

It was described as a ‘master class’, a sign that however desultory Manchester United’s Premier League season has been, Jose Mourinho can still orchestrate a performance that shows why he is one of the managerial greats.

The question that hung in the rain-sodden Easter skies of Old Trafford was whether the 2-0 victory had come too late to propel Manchester United into the automatic Champions League positions and too late to deny Chelsea the title that has seemed theirs for the last four months.

In the away dressing room the mood was one of anger and bewilderment.

Antonio Conte’s statement that he had been at fault for being unable to motivate his side seemed false, an attempt to shift the pressure from his players. As Graeme Souness remarked from the Sky Television studio, if Conte could not motivate his footballers to play at Old Trafford in front of 75,000, there was not much hope for them.

The other post-match interview, given by Chelsea’s captain, Gary Cahill, appeared much more grounded. Cahill sounded dumbfounded that Chelsea had been so effectively stifled. “We didn’t click,” he said. “In the second half we tried to create but we were below the standards we have set. We weren’t at the races and it makes us a bit angry.”

There were three elements to the instructions Mourinho gave his players. The first was that Chelsea, who began the game four points clear of Tottenham Hotspur, would be nervous. If they conceded an early goal, they might crack completely. Marcus Rashford broke through after seven minutes and thereafter Chelsea looked confused and sometimes desperate.

Conte got his tactics wrong against United (Getty)
Conte got his tactics wrong against United (Getty)

It is 21 Aprils since Sky Sports’ most famous interview, when Kevin Keegan, clutching a microphone and shouting too loudly because the headphones meant he could not hear himself speak, proclaimed how he would ‘love it, love it’ if Newcastle beat Manchester United to the title but there was a faint echo of that race at Old Trafford.

What unnerved Newcastle in 1996 was that generally they had to play their games after Manchester United and United, who had been 12 points adrift in January, kept winning.

Tottenham, 13 points behind at one stage, have won their last seven matches, scoring 22 goals. As soon as Tottenham demolished Bournemouth 4-0 on Saturday lunchtime, Chelsea could feel their breath on their neck.

Tottenham have closed the gap at the top to a mere four points (Getty)
Tottenham have closed the gap at the top to a mere four points (Getty)

Ashley Young, the latest to be given the captain’s armband by Mourinho, suggested the key to victory had been neutralising Eden Hazard, something Manchester United had attempted to do by repeated fouling during their FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Stamford Bridge last month. Here Ander Herrera employed methods that were more legal and more sophisticated.

“We worked on that during the week,” said Young. “We didn’t have much time to do it but we worked on it throughout Saturday. We were told we all had our jobs to do to fight off the threat of Chelsea and every man did it to a tee.

“Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian in particular had tough opponents against them – Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez – but they kept them quiet. The two back lads kept Diego Costa quiet.”

Herrera marked Hazard out of the game (Getty)
Herrera marked Hazard out of the game (Getty)

Costa, without Hazard’s support, appeared like a blind bull and whenever Marcos Rojo tangled with the Brazilian-born forward, which was often, the Stretford End broke into chants of “Argentina”.

Mourinho’s final instruction had been to keep Chelsea’s back three penned deep into their own half. There was a moment early on when Cahill, on his own 18-yard line, tried to bring the ball out, saw he had no options, passed square to Cesar Azpilicueta, who almost lost possession. Moments later, Rashford scored.

“We couldn’t let their defenders bring the ball out and play,” said Rashford’s strike partner, Jesse Lingard. “We knew that, if we did that, then the players behind us, the midfield and defence, would do their job of marking the players behind us.”

Afterwards, Cahill did what captains are supposed to do and rallied a very well beaten team. “There are only six games left and we are still in a good position,” he said. “We need to realise it’s not over and we have to dig in. No-one is going to give us this league.”

He pointed out that after Chelsea’s last defeat, against Crystal Palace, they had won their next two fixtures. If they repeat that bounce-back, against Southampton and Everton, they will be champions. If they don’t, we can start talking of a collapse.

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