Thursday 19 October 2017

Masterclass by Mourinho blows race wide open

Manchester Utd 2 Chelsea 0

Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini battles it out for possession with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini battles it out for possession with Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Jason Burt

Once more Jose Mourinho was determined not to be the clown at the circus.

And this time he custard-pied his former club, and the champions-elect, Chelsea. Now, with the lead at the top over Tottenham Hotspur reduced to just four points, and with six matches to play, let the carnival begin.

Mourinho cannot win the Premier League title, not this season, just as he could not three years ago when his then Chelsea team arrived at Liverpool, again in between vital European matches, again complaining about fatigue and fixture congestion, again apparently fielding a weakened team, and won.

And by the same scoreline. Mourinho was even wearing a gilet that day, and was again sporting one here, and again tapped the club crest at the final whistle.

At Anfield, Mourinho said he was determined not to be the "clowns" in Liverpool's "circus" and this performance had the same kind of edgy, passionate feel to it, albeit revved up by the fact he was sacked by Chelsea and they had angered him with their celebrations in the humiliating 4-0 league win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. They also knocked United out of the FA Cup.

Unsurprisingly Mourinho returned to that game also. That day Ander Herrera was sent off by Oliver for a second bookable offence, fouling Eden Hazard. Here, again, the Spanish midfielder was at the centre of things as he was detailed to man-mark Hazard - and did so superbly - but also managed to claim an assist and a goal himself in an outstanding performance.

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes on as a substitute to replace Marcus Rashford. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes on as a substitute to replace Marcus Rashford. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters

There was, as ever, controversy with referee Bobby Madley failing to penalise Herrera for a clear hand-ball in the build-up to United's opening goal, but beyond that admittedly crucial detail, Chelsea can have few complaints.

They were soundly beaten, out-fought, out-thought - they did not even record a shot on target.

Troubling

For manager Antonio Conte this was a troubling display. He lost goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to injury and then lost Marcos Alonso to illness in the warm-up but that did not explain how flat and how overwhelmed his team were.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte (right) and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte (right) and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Mourinho had complained about tiredness but it was Chelsea who looked jaded - who looked, in fact, like a favourite and front-runner desperately straining for the finishing line. There are 18 points to be won.

They need to win five of those games to be mathematically certain, if Spurs keep winning, but suddenly it is no longer a procession.

And to think as recently as March 18, Chelsea were 13 points clear.

Suddenly there is that seed of doubt. Suddenly, also, there is pressure on Spurs, who have played superbly to stay in touch and, fascinatingly, the sides meet this Saturday in the FA Cup semi-final. The victor of that may just lay a psychological blow.

There was pressure on United and Mourinho. He needed this performance, the best he has produced so far as United manager, not just to stay in touch with the top four but to show that he has the ability to out-think a vibrant coach like Conte. The fire still burns for Mourinho.

"A special performance because it was a special opponent," Mourinho said. "The leader. We played well. We gave them problems… so these three points are phenomenal." They were, to be fair.

He rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic and there was a brilliant response from Marcus Rashford who, along with Jesse Lingard, had the pace and movement to trouble Chelsea, and that was exposed in the seventh minute.

But there was a clear handball in the build-up, despite Herrera's weak argument afterwards that it was not deliberate, as he intercepted Nemanja Matic's pass with an outstretched arm. After that his pass was incisive as he slid the ball past David Luiz, with Rashford running on and cutting his shot back across Asmir Begovic and into the net.

Old Trafford erupted. The earliness of the goal - the quickest United had scored this season - fuelled belief, while Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo took the fight to Diego Costa, while Herrera remained shackled to Hazard and Chelsea were knocked out of their stride.

Coaxed

Not once did United relent. Mourinho coaxed, cajoled and ordered. He demanded more and more energy and effort, while Conte looked curiously inactive, a bit like his team, wearing and then disposing of a baseball cap to accompany his suit. His attire jarred; just as his players did out on the bench.

Nothing was happening for them. Hazard could not get on the ball; Costa was losing the battle; Matic was off the pace and N'Golo Kante could not take control. Further back Chelsea were unsettled and that was summed up by United's second goal.

It came early in the second half and gave them an iron grip - which Mourinho would demand was never loosened - with Ashley Young's cross cut out by Luiz only for the ball to be casually lost by Kante, with Young seizing onto it to work his way into the penalty area. Young was challenged by Kurt Zouma, and the ball was poked to Herrera, whose shot ricocheted up off Kante to spin beyond Begovic. Meanwhile, bizarrely, Gary Cahill had taken time out to help Lingard up off the turf as play continued.

Chelsea had no reply. None at all. United are now 22 matches unbeaten - the longest run in Europe's top five leagues - with Mourinho adding: "Normally you win the title if you are 22 matches unbeaten, and we are struggling to finish in the top four."

But this was a performance of champions. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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