Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard’s goals inspired United to a come-from-behind win against the champions.
Chelsea got off to a bright start, with Alvaro Morata crashing a shot off the crossbar five minutes in. The Blues’ dominance paid off handsomely, with Willian smashing a shot past David de Gea to give his side the lead with just over half an hour played.
United were on the ropes, and then out of the blue they were level. Some good interplay between Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Lukaku resulted in a calm finish from the Belgian forward from eight yards out.
United came out guns blazing in the second half, and in the 75th minute Lukaku unfurled a lovely cross with his left foot, and Lingard, on as a substitute, headed past the stranded Thibault Courtois. There was still time for Chelsea to have a marginal offside decision go against them after Morata had put the ball in the net, but United held on to reclaim second spot.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
Willian’s sparkling form continues
Coming off his two goals against Hull, and his sparkling performance against Barcelona, Willian was once again Chelsea’s most effective attacking outlet.
Throughout the first half, he ran United’s defence ragged, attacking the space left between Ashley Young, caught up with his battle against Victor Moses, and the United centre-backs.
For his goal, he started off in his own penalty area, before following the play all the way up to the other end of the field. Scott McTominay was drawn to the ball, and Willian took his chance to burst past the United backline, latching onto Eden Hazard’s pass, before crashing a powerful shot past de Gea.
The Spaniard was uncharacteristically beaten at his near post, possibly thrown off by the presence of Morata in his peripheral vision, or caught out by the sheer power behind Willian’s shot. Either way, the Brazilian winger is emerging as a key player for the second half of the season. Chelsea will hope that he can keep his form going ahead of their clash with Manchester City next Sunday.
Lukaku breaks his big-six duck
Much has been made about the £75 million striker’s performance against United’s Champions League rivals. Lukaku was yet to score against them in United’s colours, and was widely ridiculed as a flat-track bully, one who could not rise to the occasion against the league’s elite defences.
The Belgian finally hit back at his critics in the best way possible for United: a strong performance with a goal and an assist.
Mourinho will be pleased with the endeavour, athleticism and drive the big forward showed, and his goal owed a lot to his ability to hold of Andreas Christensen in the air, before taking up an intelligent position where the Dane would have been, in order to finish past Courtois. He helped set up a win that will do wonders for both his and United’s morale.
Conte shot himself in the foot with the Hazard substitution
Games as tight as this one can often be won or lost based on the manager’s substitution decisions.
In the 73rd minute, Chelsea readied Pedro to come on. General consensus dictated that Willian would be the player to come off. He had played well, but was starting to tire, and the extra injection of pace on the right might allow the Blues to target Ashley Young, who looked vulnerable.
Conte, however, had other ideas, withdrawing Eden Hazard.
The Belgian playmaker had been the most consistently threatening player of the day for Chelsea, and with his withdrawal, United’s defenders could breathe a sigh of relief. Hazard plays with a level of unpredictability that few other players in the Premier League can, and as the clock wound down, one could only wonder if Conte’s substitution had done more harm than good.
Super-sub Lingard to the rescue again
On the other hand, in Jesse Lingard, Mourinho had the perfect substitute waiting in the wings. Martial was hooked, and Lingard got to work straight away, dispossessing Willian and starting up a United counterattack.
The Englishman brought a buzzing energy to United’s forward play, harrying and hassling. Chelsea’s backline were afforded no time on the ball, and turnovers in possession became more frequent.
It was thoroughly unsurprising when Lingard popped up to score, ghosting in between defenders to leave Courtois flat-footed as the ball nestled in the corner of the net. He has made a habit of popping up with important goals for the club, and this performance was just another in a growing list of impressive turnouts (and goal celebrations) for the United academy product.
Chelsea’s season now hangs in the balance
As of writing this, Chelsea have dropped to fifth, outside the last Champions League spot. Their next game is against a Manchester City side teeming with confidence after their Carabao Cup win. They face Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League tie, with the Catalans holding the advantage after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
The next couple of weeks may well define Chelsea’s season. A loss to City, coupled with positive results for the top four, could see the Blues slip further off the pace, piling more pressure onto their rematch with Barca. Conte needs to ensure his side bounce back, as the results of these two games may reverberate throughout the rest of Chelsea’s season.