It’s no great revelation to state that Chelsea and Manchester United are further apart in terms of championship-winning potential than they have been for years and United, having already used thirty different players in the league this season, arrived at the ground without Falcao and Jones, the latter having again experienced only brief action before breaking down yet again in training. Chelsea, despite being without Diego Costa and the suspended Azpilicueta, went into the game inevitably went into the game with a more settled side and looked to be heading for the kind of narrow but solid away victory that is such a speciality of the self-proclaimed special one. That was until the final minute of injury time, when the kind of last gasp goal that was once such a hallmark of United lit up Old Trafford with an equalizer that, for Reds’ fans, felt more like a winner.
It was also a game in which the difference between the current United side and that of last season was spelt out. We may be no better off in the table than at this time last year, but that we didn’t succumb meekly to one of the top sides in the manner suggests we’ve kicked what became such a dangerous habit in 2013-14. Chelsea have been without question the best side in the Premiership thus far but, even before that late goal went in, this was a United side that looked unfazed by the prospect of facing strong opposition and that is an enormous positive for Van Gaal to take into next week’s Manchester derby.
In an even first half, United invariably attacked with style and defended, mostly, with discipline, though Rafael picked up an early yellow when he was forced to pull back Hazard after he’d left him for dead in a wide position and, later, Rojo gave the ball away sloppily to leave Chelsea with a numerical advantage on the edge of the Reds’ box, which thankfully came to nothing. At the other end, Van Persie had two chances around the midway point of the half, but was denied by Cuortois on both occasions, the first when he was put through by a superb through-ball from Januzaj, only for the Belgian keeper to smother at his feet, and moments later found himself on the end of a Di Maria ball into the box, but saw his looping header saved again by the keeper.
Although a poor header from Rojo allowed Chelsea to create a shot for Drogba, which De Gea saved comfortably, the Reds were having the better chances and pressed further as half time approached. A fine move begun by Di Maria worked the ball out to the left and Januzaj shot wide of the near post. Moments later, a foul on the same player brought a free kick on the edge of the box but, when the ball was fed inside to Mata, he blazed his shot high over the bar.
In the second half, there remained little to separate the two sides in terms of quality. Fellaini shot wide after being fed by Blind on the edge of the area and, just afterwards, De Gea saved brilliantly from Hazard. It provided only a temporary delay, however, because moments later Chelsea took the lead, the all-too familiar figure of Drogba marking his return to Old Trafford with a headed goal at the near post from Fabregas’ corner.
Willian forced De Gea into action again soon afterwards and inevitably there were to be further chances for Chelsea as United brought James Wilson on for Mata to increase the threat up front. A drive down the right from Ivanovic saw the Serbian steer his shot just beyond the far post and, at the other end, Courtois again foiled Van Persie, this time with his legs, before Januzaj cut inside but fired his shot wide.
Although the game looked out of reach, there was a spirit about United’s play in the dying minutes that suggested heads hadn’t dropped and, when Di Maria attacked with purpose on the left, Ivanovic brought him down with a desperate challenge and rightly received a second yellow card. His absence in the box may well have proved crucial: Di Maria’s ball found Fellaini, whose header was parried by Cortois but Van Persie was on hand to stab the ball home.
It was just reward for United, for whom a share of the points was the least they deserved. It was also good to see Fellaini involved in a crucial goal for the second time in a week. The big Belgian was arguably United’s best player on the day and may yet go on to put his nightmare first season behind him and become the United player he is so clearly desperate to be. That he wasn’t alone in a Red shirt in showing such spirit may be the biggest pointer yet during Van Gaal’s tenure towards a much brighter future.