Manchester United blew open the English Premier League title race on Sunday, stunning table-topping Chelsea 2-0 in an engrossing game at Old Trafford which saw the hosts churn out a tactical masterclass.
Former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, now managing Manchester United, took a major risk when he announced his line up, with star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic warming the bench, as young Marcus Rashford was chosen to lead the line.
Considering the veteran Swede had played 90 minutes in United’s UEFA Europa League draw against Anderlecht on Thursday, the decision wasn't as shocking but without their top scorer, United’s prospects looked bleak even if David de Gea made the starting XI after recovering from a hip injury.
Chelsea were forced into two changes of their own, with Asmir Begovic replacing Thibaut Courtois in goal after the latter had failed to recover from an ankle complaint and Marcos Alonso’s injury in the warm-up enabled Kurt Zouma to make a rare Premier League start.
And to the surprise of many, United began the first-half brightly and truth be told, never once relinquished their stranglehold once Rashford justified his inclusion with a well-taken goal in the 7th minute.
Barely two minutes ago, the young English striker had missed a chance to take United level, but when Ander Herrera set him up with a precise through ball, the 19-year-old finished smartly past Begovic to score his second goal in as many games. Herrera set up the chance after intercepting Nemanja Matic’s pass, the Spaniard had handled the ball, yet referee Robert Madley waved play on and the hosts pressed home their advantage.
United kept the pressure on Chelsea in both halves, constantly sending searching balls to Rashford behind Chelsea’s three-man defence, but it wasn't all long balls on Sunday, as the likes of Jesse Lingard, Rashford and Herrera were combining exceptionally well.
In fact, the excellent Herrera delivered a standout performance on Sunday, man-marking Chelsea’s danger man Eden Hazard out of the game, never letting the Belgian winger breathe for even a moment. With Hazard muted, the Blues were unable to supply Diego Costa with quality ammunition and as a result, the snarling Spaniard was forced to chase shadows and tussle with United defenders Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly on several occasions throughout the game.
At half-time, de Gea had not been tested by the away side even once and Conte’s side were in trouble as United looked dangerous every time they broke.
And with just four minutes played in the second half, United doubled their lead via Herrera. N’Golo Kante’s tackle on Ashley Young inside the box made the ball fall into his path and the Spaniard’s first-time shot got a deflection to deceive Begovic and effectively seal the result despite having more than 40 minutes on the clock left to play.
While the 27-year-old Spaniard deservedly scooped the man-of-the-match award, Rashford had an excellent game and when Ibrahimovic replaced him near the end of the game, Old Trafford gave him a standing ovation as they lauded the young striker’s lung-bursting effort on the night.
Conte sensed his team were playing sub-par but despite sending Willian and Cesc Fabregas on, the away side failed to conjure anything of note, with de Gea a virtual spectator as United finally broke their run of 12 games without a win against Chelsea in stunning style.
The result is exactly what Chelsea were desperate to avoid, as second-placed Tottenham Hotspur have cut down the gap to just four points from 10 previously, in a span of three games. While Spurs still have the difficult fixtures of the two, the pressure is well and truly on the Blues and how they respond now may well define their season which is on the verge of imploding.
For United the result proves that they have enough quality in their squad to challenge for the top four and simultaneously pursue Europa League glory. Fourth-placed Manchester City are just four points ahead and considering Mourinho’s men have played a game less, they are very much in the hunt to make next year’s Champions League.
Prior to the game, Mourinho had stressed it was just a game but after two defeats (A 4-0 league humbling in October and a FA Cup loss in Match ) this season already, ‘The Special One’ would have been desperate for a win, which came, without a shadow of doubt, deservedly.