It was the sort of goal that should determine the outcome of such a heady encounter and Alvaro Morata provided it in a stunning manner to send Conte jumping and Mourinho reeling.
This was the afternoon when Chelsea reignited their season and, maybe, sent the Premier League torch on its way back towards Manchester. Not to United, who were beaten here, their dull limitations exposed by Chelsea’s vibrancy, but across the city to the Etihad Stadium.
An eight-point lead has been established going into the international break, nine in effect when Manchester City’s vastly superior goal difference is factored in, and even though we are only 11 rounds of matches into this campaign, it is already appearing to be a formidable gap to close.
Of course, it can happen, Jose Mourinho said so, and a serial winner such as the United manager should know, but the words of Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte before this predictably spiky encounter were the most prescient: the “big problem”, he said, were City. “If they continue in this way, it will be very difficult to fight for the title,” Conte had said.
City are continuing in this way, sweeping aside Arsenal, despite Arsene Wenger’s protestations of incompetence from the officials, and cheating from City, and it may soon begin to be an almighty tussle simply to finish in the top four behind them. Either way, Chelsea could not afford to lose this fixture, Conte could not afford to lose it, for sure, given his position, given the tension and given his antipathy towards his predecessor, Mourinho. There was always that edge.
It was there before kick-off, when Conte did not look Mourinho in the eye as the United manager offered his hand, and it was there at the final whistle when the Italian fist-pumped in delight before studiously marching away on to the pitch. He simply did not want to acknowledge, to receive, to interact with, Mourinho who has got under his skin but did not get the points.
“Antonio, Antonio,” rang round Stamford Bridge and it washed away some of the angst that had resurfaced with the chaotic Champions League defeat away to Roma and which had provoked recriminations and inquests and led to David Luiz being unceremoniously dumped from the team and his future questioned.
Given Luiz’s status, his popularity with the Chelsea hierarchy, it was a decision that might have deeper consequences although his replacement, Andreas Christensen, 21, was outstanding. Maybe Conte should trust in youth a little more, also. But, in truth, the biggest difference was the return of N’Golo Kante who has been sorely missed for six matches with a damaged hamstring – Chelsea only won three of those games, and only one convincingly – and eclipsed Nemanja Matic. So much has been made of Matic’s controversial move to United but his importance to Chelsea has been overblown as Kante proved on this dominant occasion.
It was not the only direct matchup with consequences with a comparison to be made between Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku, the two big-money strikers, neither of whom has scored for six matches. And Morata could as easily have lined up for United as Lukaku could have gone back to Chelsea. Instead it was the other way round and Morata came out on top.
His towering header settled it and although he spurned a number of other chances, making a terrible hash of an injury-time opportunity when he was set clear on goal by substitute Willian, before falling over, the young Spaniard deserved the plaudits. In the first-half, he had cut a frustrated figure, even appearing to twice to throw himself to the turf in search of punishment for the United defenders he felt had roughed him up, but then he ghosted between them to reach Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross to send an imperious, trademark header back across David De Gea and high into the net.
United had lost the ball to allow that goal, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the guilty party, and despite Mourinho’s protestations of parity between the two sides, they played a curious game. They initially went for it, they cut loose but then they, tactically, appeared to be caught between two approaches and ultimately paid the price for not continuing to go at Chelsea when they were gettable.
Chances had been traded. It was thunderous, at times, a bit too bone-jarringly frantic also, and, in fact, the ball was in the United net inside the first 10 minutes with Phil Jones volleying spectacularly past a bemused De Gea. Fortunately for United, Morata was adjudged to have pushed the United defender.
Then, at the other end, Marcus Rashford should have scored as he met Ashley Young’s cross only for him to cushion his header on to the roof of the net with Thibaut Courtois stranded. The openness continued – Tiemoue Bakayoko side-footed wastefully wide, Lukaku turned sharply but could not bend his shot around Courtois and then Cesc Fabregas headed into the side-netting from close-range as he met a rebound when De Gea had superbly beaten out a fierce drive by the impressive Eden Hazard.
On half-time there was one, final clear chance as Christensen reached a corner only to head – or rather shoulder – the ball over the cross-bar. There were recriminations after that, also, among the United players and they will have continued at the interval with both managers, presumably, imploring more. But it was Chelsea who seized the initiative. United paid for their rising conservatism, in fact.
After Hazard had swept a first-time shot, from a fine Fabregas cross, straight at De Gea, Chelsea struck through Morata and United appeared shaken. It took them time – too long – to rally with Chelsea racking up more chances as United substitute Marouane Fellaini was caught in possession by Bakayoko who shot, when he should have played the ball through to Morata and then Hazard was guilty of the same offence although at least he drew a save.
Finally, United created an opening with the ball dropping to Rashford on the edge of the area but he flashed a snapshot narrowly past the post. They went closer when Fellaini chested the ball down and shot low only for Courtois to push it away before, after Morata’s blunder, Rashford’s free-kick was deflected just over the bar.
But Chelsea had their win, and deservedly so while for Mourinho it is now 10 games, no victories and just one goal in away games against the other ‘top six’ clubs, as first Chelsea and United manager. That is not a good statistic for him.
And neither is the gap that has now emerged at the top of the Premier League table.
Culled from Telegraph.