Chelsea versus Manchester United has so often been a battle between title contenders over the past decade, but their match this past weekend at Stamford Bridge was instead a contest of two teams falling short of expectations this season. Whilst Chelsea’s underachievement this campaign is considerably more than United’s and brought about a managerial change that would have seemed unthinkable last summer, both squads are struggling to justify the huge amounts of money it cost to assemble them. However, despite there being less on line for this match than in recent years, it was still a fascinating encounter.
In the opening 25 minutes, for all Manchester United’s dominance of possession, all they had to show for it was a shot from Anthony Martial wonderfully tipped around the post by Thibaut Courtois. Shortly after, Chelsea began to grow into the game and quickly carved out three good chances and could easily have had a penalty when Daley Blind jumped to block, and handled, a goal bound shot from John Terry. Ironic given the number of times Terry has done the same thing in his own penalty area.
An excellent goal from Jesse Lingard put United ahead and it appeared that a combination of Chelsea’s poor service out wide and David De Gea there to thwart Chelsea when they did get an opportunity would see the visitors leave with all three points. However, Chelsea kept up their pressure and superb pass from Cesc Fabregas put Diego Costa in for an injury time equaliser that the home side probably deserved.
Whilst a draw was a fair result, it didn’t really do either side any favours. Chelsea have been slowly improving under Guus Hiddink’s stewardship, but need more wins to climb the table. The inconsistency of the sides above them may still provide hope for a top six finish, but that looks a tough ask at this stage. They are now nine points behind sixth place West Ham, but with only thirteen games remaining, top eight seems more realistic. The Blues will no doubt be looking to the FA Cup to provide a positive end to their season, as things stand. The news last week that John Terry will leave Chelsea when his contract expires at the end of the season was huge, but whoever takes over as manager at Stamford Bridge this summer will need to think about more than replacing Terry. Another stalwart whose future must be under consideration is Branislav Ivanovic; the right-back has been very poor this season and I, for one, cannot understand why they haven’t switched Cesar Azpilicueta to his natural right-back position and play Baba Rahman at left-back. Other issues, such as a central midfielder to control the tempo, another striker that can be relied upon when Costa is either off form, injured or suspended and an attacking midfielder that can add more of a goal threat.
Manchester United’s FA Cup win over Derby prompted improved Premier League form and has eased a little of the pressure on Manager Louis Van Gaal. No doubt, the Dutchman will bemoan not winning the game at Stamford Bridge and cite their prolonged periods of possession and control of the game. However, the game was indicative of so much of their season; for all the possession their opponents sit back and allow them to have, they are simply not incisive enough.
The Chelsea game was another prime example of that; possession not capitalised upon and looking vulnerable on the counterattack. The functionality of their play is a big reason why Van Gaal is fast losing support with fans at Old Trafford and despite extensive spending over recent years, there will be plenty of work to do this summer if they are to compete for the title again, whoever is in charge.
United currently sit six points behind fourth place Manchester City, with an inferior goal difference. City and Arsenal have proved they can stay the course, Tottenham are in form and Leicester appear to be going nowhere. As things stand, the odds are against United finishing in the top four although they can’t be ruled out. This coming weekend’s results could be key because the current top four play each other, with Arsenal at home to Leicester and Manchester City hosting Spurs. That means that at least two of those teams will drop points and with United playing Sunderland, it’s an opportunity for them to make up some ground. Chelsea, meanwhile take on a Newcastle side that has struggled this season, but have made significant signings in January and been something of bogey-team for Chelsea in the past.
So, neither Manchester United or Chelsea will be satisfied with a draw and both will need to significantly up their game and start putting wins together if either are to make the move up the Premier League table that both desire.