A beautifully-placed Alvaro Morata header was enough for Chelsea to edge Manchester United in a thrilling contest at Stamford Bridge.
Both sides came into the game with added incentive to clinch all three points after Manchester City’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal earlier in the day – but it was Antonio Conte’s Blues who responded accordingly.
In a real blood-and-thunder heavyweight clash, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard impressed for the hosts while United failed bring their A-game, failing to react sufficiently to going behind in the 55th-minute.
Here are five talking points from the game at Stamford Bridge.
1 Cesc as classy as ever
Cesc Fabregas has always been one of the Premier League’s more astute technicians. Awareness, vision and an understanding of space combines to make him one of the most effective midfielders, but here, he was the complete package.
Combining with the raw-but-powerful Tiemoue Bakayoko, Fabregas was outstanding in the middle for Chelsea, picking out passes to Hazard and Morata with sumptuous ease and showing his combative side.
With N’Golo Kante back in the starting line-up, Chelsea’s midfield was an unanswerable mixture of muscle, craft and organisation. And Fabregas was the beating heart of it.
In the second half he was everywhere, growing in influence as United looked on the verge of wilting. Conte arguably did Jose Mourinho a favour by bringing him off for the more defensively-inclined Danny Drinkwater with ten minutes to go.
The Spaniard went off to a standing ovation, though, and he deserved it.
2 United miss Pogba more and more each week
The battle in midfield was so heavily in Chelsea’s favour that it’s unclear how much of a difference Paul Pogba would have made had he been fit. However, going forward, United missed his ability to open up defences. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was wholly ineffective, which only highlighted the dearth of creativity in the United ranks.
The Armenian started the season brightly but has looked out-of-sorts recently and he was unable to unlock Chelsea at any point before being replaced on the hour mark.
Pogba offers United that driving presence in midfield, a cantering creative spark with a penchant for the spectacular. As the game wore on, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford were feeding on scraps but, had Pogba been the one playing the ball to their feet, it may have been a different story.
3 Un-parking the bus doesn’t come off for Mourinho
Mourinho’s bus wasn’t parked at Stamford Bridge - it was careening wildly off the side of the road, plummeting recklessly towards the unknown. Whereas the United manager had exercised all his tactical nous and pragmatism in recent major bouts against Liverpool and Tottenham – which yielded four points – he had instructed Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, the two wing-backs, to push high up the pitch and start on the front foot.
It almost worked. Young, in an advanced position, found Rashford with a cross from which the England striker couldn’t convert as Thibaut Courtois rushed off his line to unnerve him.
There was to be no stifling from Mourinho here, but abandoning his restraint ultimately led to defeat. The sad fact for United here was that, in a toe-to-toe battle, they looked distinctly second-best against a hurt Chelsea, determined to atone for a wretched midweek display in Rome.
United’s next big trip is away to Arsenal on December 2nd. It will be interesting to see what Mourinho does then.
4 Conte proves he’s a real fighter
It’s worth remembering that, after falling to a humbling 3-0 defeat to Arsenal last season, Conte changed Chelsea to a back three and started winning for fun. With his back against the wall, the Italian offered the most emphatic rebuttal to those who doubted his credentials.
This week has borne startling similarities. Chelsea, again, were humbled, this time being thoroughly outclassed by Roma. Conte’s response was to give his players a frank dressing down during the week. He omitted an under-performing David Luiz from the matchday squad and handed a start to the 21-year-old Andreas Christensen, while naming Ethan Ampadu, only 17, on the bench.
It was incontrovertible evidence that, although results have not been as sparkling as last season, Conte remains a force to be reckoned with Stamford Bridge. He is a man of tremendously intense fire and passion, but also courage, and he showed that by getting the better of a major rival in a match that could have been decisive in shaping his future.
Chelsea may not win the league. It’s difficult seeing anybody stopping City at this stage. One thing’s for sure, though: Conte won’t relinquish the Premier League crown without a fight.
5 Lukaku must drag himself out of sticky patch
Neither Romelu Lukaku nor Alvaro Morata enjoyed overly-productive Octobers. The difference now, crucially, is that the Spaniard walks away the match-winner after a fine header while United’s Belgian forward – who they chose over the former Real Madrid man, of course – goes into the international break in need of a regroup.
Lukaku now hasn’t found the net since September 30th and one can’t help but think back to the victory over Benfica, when he was denied penalty taking privileges by his manager. Had Lukaku been able to convert that spot-kick, it may have produced a much-needed surge in confidence.
At Stamford Bridge, Lukaku looked sharp at the outset. He rolled Christensen and forced a smart stop from Thibaut Courtois, but that was his most telling contribution. Mkhitaryan’s dramatic dip in form has not helped the quality of service coming the 24-year-old’s way, but as the game wore on, Lukaku faded worryingly. His touch deserted him as he became a peripheral figure up top, in stark contrast to the hard-running Morata who terrorised the United defence throughout.
Lukaku opened his United account early and entered a rich vein of form but he now finds himself in a rut. Suddenly, the net seems that little bit smaller. He has been here before, but the spotlight at Old Trafford is undeniably more intense than at Goodison Park and, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic expected back in the coming weeks, Lukaku must rediscover his clinical edge – or face the axe.
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