By Josh Sagoo
On paper, the build-up to this match did not arouse the same excitement that has normally precipitated the famous United-Chelsea clashes of old – that being a showdown between two of the best teams in English football battling for the Premier League title. However, with Manchester City’s hands on the title since December, this titanic clash took on new importance.
With Liverpool’s 4-1 win over West Ham at Anfield taking them to second place, pressure mounting on Jose for below-par performances in the Tottenham, Newcastle and Sevilla matches and the dipping form of Paul Pogba, a win for United was imperative. As for Conte, victory was a must if Chelsea were to fight for a top-four position and if he were to protect his job.
The 2-1 United victory placed Conte’s job in further jeopardy, but it was a pivotal win for the Red Devils.
Romelu Lukaku was in lightning form against a fairly strong Chelsea team, earning himself one goal and one assist and subsequently the man of the match award. But his electric performance extends beyond this emphatic win, and it was just the response that was needed to fight back at those who had questioned his abilities.
Indeed, the statistic on every critic’s mind was that he had not managed to score against any of the ‘Big Six’ teams this season, leading some to claim that he was having a poor season. However, his crucial equaliser will come as a huge boost for the Belgian forward who has, despite the criticism, hauled in 22 goals this season, more than the combined total scored by Alvaro Morata and Alexandre Lacazette. Thierry Henry, Belgium’s assistant manager, has also taken note of Lukaku’s improved game, claiming that ‘his hold-up play is better’ and that he is now on his way to becoming the complete striker.
A further positive for United was the return to form of Paul Pogba, United’s talisman and seen by many as a future captain. Pogba had shown a noticeable dip in performance levels in recent matches, seeing him come off the bench in matches against Huddersfield and Sevilla.
However, after a shaky start in the first ten minutes for United, the team really came into their stride, with Pogba at the forefront, charging at Chelsea’s defence and trying to feed balls to Lukaku’s feet. It was very much a polished display from the 24-year-old, and his performance further stood out from that of the unusually quiet Alexis Sanchez.
The composed performance of Scott McTominay was another talking point, with United fans drawing parallels between the 21-year-old and former favourite Darren Fletcher, who was known for his smooth, very structured style of play. McTominay was able to neutralise the danger Eden Hazard posed to the United team and did not look out of place among his more experienced teammates.
In his post-match interview, Mourinho mentioned his satisfaction at seeing the young Englishman thrive in what was arguably his biggest test so far. And though Mourinho lauded the young talent, he also stressed that there is now only one attribute left that he needs to bring to his play – goals. But with Michael Carrick joining the coaching staff next season, there is good reason for United fans to be delighted with the progress of the youth graduate.
And, of course, Jose Mourinho was able to settle the feud with his Chelsea adversary Antonio Conte with the 2-1 victory. Indeed, in recent months the two had publicly sparred with each other in their press conferences, with Conte stressing that Jose would forever be a “little man” and Jose firing back at the Chelsea manager’s jibes, claiming that he now only feels “contempt” towards him. On the pitch, however, the two shook hands with each other, upholding their professionalism and perhaps subtly calling an end to the public spat which had spiralled thanks to the media’s portrayal.
Even so, this was not a perfect afternoon for Jose’s team. David de Gea, who is now surely the best goalkeeper in Europe, failed to successfully protect the side post which thus allowed Willian to weave the ball into the net beyond the keeper’s reach. Needless to say, De Gea has been United’s top player this season, with another stellar performance against Sevilla in the mid-week Champions League clash.
On the whole, United’s victory is a huge positive for the team, boosting the morale of Lukaku and Pogba after criticism in recent weeks as well as showcasing McTominay’s ability to perform in a highly challenging game. Jesse Lingard revived his unstoppable form with the winner and Mourinho was able to defeat his adversary. Indeed, this game reignited memories of the famous comebacks that glossed the Ferguson era and should add to the team’s confidence levels when they head to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace.
Photograph: soccer.ru via Wikimedia Commons