So the biggest game of the weekend in The Premier League lived up to its billing in several ways, Manchester United went into the game on Sunday having failed to get a victory in their last 8 games against Chelsea with 4 wins and 4 draws. This season alone has seen United lose twice to Chelsea, in the Premier league first leg tie and FA cup quarter final fixture. Jose Mourinho up against Antonio Conte in what is fast becoming an intense rivalry and the Italian gaffer seem to be winning on all turns including running away with the league, but with Tottenham on a good run and Chelsea conceding goals non-stop, Sunday’s game held a lot beyond just three points and cometh the hour, cometh the man Jose, United were 2-0 winners after 90 minutes with goals from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera coming in each half to re-ignite a slim title fight for the likes of Tottenham Hotspurs and continue United’s push for a top four finish, here are 5 things we learnt from the game;
1. Jose still got it: Recently, a lot of people had begun to question the ability of the self-styled Special One who some even termed ‘Special Once’, Manchester United were failing to win games especially at Old Trafford and even though they were difficult to defeat leading to a long unbeaten run, they were not scoring enough goals to close the gap and stake a top four place, many blamed his tactics, some questioned his game management abilities whilst others criticized his failing to get the best out of his players whilst always eager to throw his team under the bus in the media. His initial encounters with Antonio Conte since the Italian’s arrival in England have ended with him on the losing side on both occasions especially with the memories of the first leg spat lingering, and whilst Antonio Conte seemed to have found balance and the right system for his team, same cannot be said for Jose.
When the Starting XI for Sundays game was reeled out, many Manchester United fans were already throwing in the towel with their leading marksman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and arguably the most creative player in the team Mhkitaryan both left out on the bench and starting berths given to the likes of Ashley Young, Darmian, Fellaini and Jesse Lingard, but the supposedly weakened team produced one of the best performances of the season getting the better of the league leaders for the entire duration of the game. Jose served a master class, setting players to do proper man-marking jobs, capitalizing on the pace of his young forwards to unsettle Chelsea’s back line and reducing Chelsea to no shots on target all game. United were able to keep the Blues key-men quiet for 90 minutes, Hazard barely had a sniff, Costa’s only attempt was a 46th minute shot which was well wide off target, Matic and Kante got bossed in the midfield and we saw Antonio Conte struggle with a response switching formations all through the game but couldn’t get his team going like we have seen him do all season. Chelsea may well still go ahead and win the league, Antonio Conte deservedly would still get all the plaudits due his way but for Jose, he needed a big win, he needed to prove that tactically, he was still special and on a day when Goliath invaded his home, he brought out a performance of champions.
2. Ander Herrera is the Fireman: Getting to do the same job where he got sent off last time out looked like a poison chalice for the Spaniard, especially when the job is to stop the in-form and PFA Player of the season contender, Eden Hazard, my initial thoughts when I saw Herrera slotting into center back and right back during the early stages of the game was that we were limiting one of the few creative talents in the starting line-up to a defensive job, but Ander proved that he was a man of many talents, called a ‘fireman’ in his days at Bilbao, proved it on both ends of the field in Manchester, whilst totally subduing Hazard on one hand, he still found time to put up a solid midfield performance battling the likes of Kante and Matic, lay a beauty of an assist for United’s opener and also grab his first goal in over a year in the early minutes of the second half which was massive for the teams plan going into the second 45 minutes.
3. Fast and Furious starring Marcus Rashford: If he had been handed the MOTM award, no one would have complained, the teenager was immense all game, ran his legs out, bullied players who were more muscular than he was, tucked in some defensive duties when needed, his understanding with Jesse Lingard worried the Chelsea back-line, he brought his skills, pace, commitment, fast thinking into a big game and one area of his game that seemed to have struggled in recent times was his goal scoring and when that pass from Ander Herrera broke to him, many wondered if he had pushed the ball away from goal too much, but the young lad was calm, mature and decisive in scoring the opener which settled the nerves of the team and the home fans.
4. A bad day in the office for Conte: Antonio Conte started the season on an unsure ground, his first season in England and many wondered if he would be able to replicate some of his Juventus magic in The Premier League, after suffering defeat to Arsenal, he made that switch to a 3-4-3 and the fortunes of the team changed afterwards, game after game, they built a system and tore their opponents apart but just when the finish line is being sighted, the team is showing signs of fatigue and giving some hope to title chasers Tottenham Hotspurs. Key to Chelsea’s glorious form is the fact that they have been involved in very few competitions and thus have been able to consistently maintain the same starting XI in most games, but recently we saw them lose Victor Moses and when they had to put in a different player even in the same system, they struggled and even lost to Crystal Palace, just before kick-off yesterday, they lost Marcos Alonso along with Thibaut Courtois and this again unsettled the system as Zouma could not cope in the 3 man back-line and Cesar Azpilicueta being shifted to the left wing didn’t quite work out well, we even saw Victor Moses moved to that position but clearly it showed that for the system to work, certain set of players have to play in it and if Alonso’s injury lasts beyond one game, Conte may have to consider a different plan to see his team beyond the line.
5. The race is on: I fully expect Chelsea to still go ahead and win the league with six games left to play, but when Tottenham romped to 4 nil win over Bournemouth early Saturday afternoon, gaffer Mauricio Pochettino said he was glad his team had played first and laid the gauntlet whilst awaiting the Chelsea game the following day, but no one can deny that at this stage, it is not signed and sealed yet for the Blues, a gap that at a stage was at 13 points have now been reduced to four points, whilst Spurs have the more difficult fixtures, they are the team in form and with momentum on their side, wins on tough grounds cannot be ruled out and if Chelsea don’t recover from their key injuries and put up unimpressive displays like this especially with tricky ties against Everton and Southampton still to play, we could just be in for more excitement going into the final days of the season.