A Blue Up North reviews a lead that turned into a loss for The Blues.
On Sunday, Chelsea made the trip to Old Trafford for a Premier League match against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. With both clubs lying a long way behind runaway leaders Manchester City, the match was billed as part of the race for top 4 positions and Champions League qualification. The hosts had lost second place in the league after Liverpool’s win on Saturday while The Blues had dropped to fifth place due to Spurs’s victory in Sunday’s early kick off. So both sides were hoping for all 3 points especially after recent league defeats for both sides.
Chelsea have only won once in the last 8 seasons in this league fixture and this match comes in the middle of a tough run of fixtures for The Blues with a trip to the leaders up next and the return Champions League leg away in Barcelona soon afterward. Fortunately for Antonio Conte he has almost all of his squad fit and available with only David Luiz, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley the only missing players due to injuries.
After a very impressive performance against the Catalan giants earlier in the week, the Italian was expected to keep with the majority of his starting line up with just a few tweaks. Top goal scorer Alvaro Morata was recalled in attack as The Blues started with a recognised striker leading the line with Pedro dropping to the bench and Eden Hazard moving to the left side of the front 3. Danny Drinkwater was brought into the midfield in place of Cesc Fabregas to bring a bit more steel and grit in the middle of the team to counter the likes of Matic and Pogba.
Manchester United themselves went into this fixture after a Champions League first leg tie against Spanish opposition and Mourinho recalled Paul Pogba to his starting XI and kept faith with Romelu Lukaku despite the Belgian receiving criticism for his recent displays. Otherwise, the ex Chelsea manager also had an almost fully fit squad to chose from.
Despite The Red Devils being the closest challenger to Manchester City’s march to the league title and looking good for a quarter final spot in the Champions League, Mourinho’s side have been generally blasted for play very flat football, neither over negative nor attacking with any level of flair. This was typified in their 0-0 draw at Sevilla on Wednesday evening.
With this in mind, Conte sent his side out on their front feet. And with their tails up after outplaying Messi’s gang on Tuesday, The Blues swarmed all over the home defence. N’Golo Kante and Drinkwater won everything in midfield and the latter passed the ball on with laser precision, including a delightful 30 yard ball out to Victor Moses on the right flank. Willian and Hazard were busy with their movement and created space. Hazard had time 25 yards out and floated the ball over to the left. Marcos Alonso met the pass with a clean volley which, with pinpoint accuracy, found Morata just 6 yards out but the striker’s first time attempt struck the bar with de Gea in goal completely unmoved. The rebound was leapt upon by Hazard, who’s attempt was tipped over the bar. There was only 4 minutes on the clock.
The Blues remained in control and created the better chances. A Lukaku shot which was comfortably saved by Courtois was the home side’s only real attempt. Eventually the pressure finally told and it was that man Willian who struck again.
However, with the visitors looking like they were going to completely blow their opponents away, they never managed to extend their lead. Then out of almost nowhere, The Red Devils equalised. After Messi had finally broken his goal drought against The Blues on Tuesday, Lukaku finally broke his duck against the top 6 sides this season. The Belgian had scored 12 Premier League goals so far this season but had only managed 4 attempts on target against the big 6.
Just to add to the frustrations of all in blue, in the build up to the equaliser there was a clash of heads between Lukaku and Andreas Christensen. The Belgian was relatively unscathed and almost immediately continued with the move after rubbing the back of his head. However the Danish central defender stayed down before getting back to his feet looking very groggy. Despite this, Martin Atkinson did not stop play and I’m not sure that he would have blown his whistle even if Christensen had remained on the deck. As the play continued, Christensen was both ineffective and not in his correct position, leaving a gaping hole in Chelsea’s central defence. Lukaku reacted quickest and took his opportunity expertly.
Another similarity between both of Chelsea’s matches this week was in their inability to keep their early match performance going through to the final whistle. Against Barcelona, The Blues dominated the play and attempts on goal until the last 20 minutes or so. However, against Manchester United, Chelsea’s dominance was shorter lived. This time their lethargic spell allowed their hosts to score the winning goal.
The worry is that their inability to keep their tempo and concentration going for the whole match is a sign of a bigger problem. Is the team missing the steely determination amongst it’s ranks, are they not fit enough, over trained or something else? Conte himself may be puzzled as to why this has happened twice in the same week in big matches although he himself may have contributed partially this time when he decided to take Hazard off when bringing on the fresh legs of Pedro.
Whatever the issues are behind this situation, Chelsea may just be unlucky. The ill fortune of hitting the post twice and a misguided pass that helped set up Messi’s equaliser against Barcelona, while the crossbar, a referee seemingly forgetting what to do after a clash of heads and a linesman flagging incorrectly all conspired against The Blues gaining 2 victories.
Hopefully Conte is busy focusing on enhancing the movement and teamwork that allowed his side to dominate in both matches whilst working to negate their down turn in performance in the latter stages of the matches instead of licking his wounds regarding his side’s misfortune. After all, it’s the runaway leaders up next.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue