The race for UEFA Champions League football in the 2019-20 Premier League season was made even more exciting on Monday night as Manchester United inflicted a 2-0 defeat on fourth-placed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Goals from Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire were enough to see United move up to seventh in an increasingly tight table. The Red Devils now just three points behind Chelsea, who also have Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur breathing down their necks.
Frank Lampard’s side, who were without a win in their last three league games, were looking to make amends for a heavy 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season. However, their plans were dealt a serious blow before kick-off as top scorer Tammy Abraham was ruled out due to injury with Michy Batshuayi taking his place in the starting eleven. With Willy Caballero once again given a run out in goal over Kepa, this was The Blues’ oldest Premier League team this season at an average of 28 years and 171 days. For the visitors, Bruno Fernandes retained his starting position, fellow January arrival Odion Ighalo was on the bench, and Eric Bailly made his first competitive appearance since April last year - a 1-1 draw with Chelsea.
What was meant to be the last game of the new staggered winter break saw an energetic opening disrupted by an early injury to Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante, who had to be replaced by Mason Mount with ten minutes played. While both sides looked fairly fit and full of running, the extended break from football was evident as the killer instinct in the final third seemed to be lacking. In fact, the first shot on target from either team came in the 45th minute and brought about the first goal, with Anthony Martial getting the jump on Andreas Christensen to flick Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s superb cross past Caballero into the Chelsea net. United’s first goal in the league since they put four past Norwich on January 11 could scarcely have come at a better time.
The hosts had reason to be aggrieved by the events of the first half - Kante’s injury and Martial’s goal sandwiched several missed chances (from Batshuayi in particular), a booking for diving for Willian, and a VAR check for a red card against Maguire that went the way of the United skipper.
The home side started the second half on the front foot, with United seeming content to sit back, soak up the pressure, and hit on the counter. Their strategy appeared to have backfired soon after the restart as half time substitute Kurt Zouma restored parity from a corner, only for VAR to disallow the goal after spotting Cesar Azpilicueta’s push on Brandon Williams in the build-up. Chelsea were unable to build on their early momentum, however, and Martial’s goal remained the only effort on target as the clock ticked past the hour mark.
Having seen off Chelsea’s opening salvo, United stepped up a gear and started to create a few opportunities of their own. Bruno once again showed glimpses of his undeniable quality, striking the post from a close-range free-kick out on the left before his corner was powerfully headed home by Maguire to double the visitors’ lead. It was the United skipper’s first Premier League goal for his new side, and United fans will be eager to see more of the same from him.
VAR denied Chelsea yet again soon after, as substitute Olivier Giroud’s deft diving header at the end of an incisive Chelsea move was ruled out for offside. Mount matched Bruno’s free-kick off the near post with one of his own, but Chelsea’s best efforts to find a route back into the game were rebuffed time and again on a frustrating night. In fact, they could have fallen further behind had United’s other new signing Odion Ighalo, who made a late substitute appearance, been able to poke the ball past Caballero after being sent through on goal.
The final whistle signalled United’s first-ever double over Chelsea in the Premier League era and set the stage for a riveting run-in with 12 games to go. As the focus for both teams now shifts to their respective mid-week European commitments, here are the hits and flops from Stamford Bridge.
#5 Hit: Mateo Kovacic
Kovacic was one of a few bright sparks on a largely frustrating night for Chelsea, with the midfielder putting in an energetic and purposeful performance. He was heavily involved in the opening exchanges, racking up the most successful passes, most opposition-half passes, most touches, most clearances, and most possession wins for Chelsea in the first half.
The Croatian also popped up in attacking positions as his side chased the game in the second half, with one clear chance denied by an excellent last-ditch tackle by Eric Bailly. Kovacic has really come into his own since making his loan move from Real Madrid permanent and will be an integral part of Chelsea’s Champions League campaign and push for a top-four finish in the league.