Forced to make four changes to the side that has excelled of late, Louis Van Gaal will find many positives to take from a game in which his side dominated possession and looked comfortable on the ball against opponents whose defensive game plan was clear from the off. Ultimately, the plan worked and Chelsea won to take another step towards the championship.
From the kick off, Chelsea were content to sit back and allow United to dominate possession. The Reds spurned an excellent chance early in the half when Rooney was fed by Shaw’s cut back but narrowly failed to get his shot on target. Sadly, in a game like this, such small margins were always likely to be significant. For much of the first half, Chelsea parked the proverbial bus and had at least one wheel on Fellaini’s foot: Zouma had been specifically deployed to keep him quiet and, although a lot of the play was going on in the home side’s half around him, the ploy clearly worked. The attention he drew says much for Fellaini’s renaissance this season and his chief importance to the Reds has been in his ability to disrupt opponents’ defensive arrangements. Neutralised, Chelsea were able to maintain their shape however much United threw at them.
Mourinho’s side simply looked to feed off the scraps and errors yielded by United and it was with one of these rare forays forward that they broke the deadlock. A simple triangular passing movement involving Fabregas and Oscar put Hazard through on goal and the Belgian made no mistake.
Although United continued to dominate possession in the second half, it was Chelsea who came closest to scoring. A rare error from Herrera in midfield allowed Drogba to surge towards the United goal and, when Smalling did well to get a foot to his shot, it deflected towards the far post where Hazard was denied by the woodwork.
United continued to press for an equaliser. A McNair shot was saved by Courtois and Shaw, who performed well as an overlapping full back, got behind the Chelsea back line to cross, only for Mata to steer his shot off target.
It was that kind of afternoon. Falcao, in what was surely his last chance to push for a place in the United squad last season, beat Zouma for pace only to crash his shot wide of the near post and a final surge of hope when Herrera looked to have been felled in the box was thwarted when Mike Dean booked the Basque midfielder for diving.
Ultimately, it was a frustrating experience but one that again stressed the improvements the Reds have made recently, particularly when compared to the ignominious defeat suffered at this ground last season. Carrick was undoubtedly missed in midfield but then that raises the issue of precisely what we do when he’s unavailable and we come up against opponents like this, as we unquestionably will if we qualify for and make progress in Europe next season. One for you to consider in the summer transfer window perhaps, Louis.