Monday 26 August 2019

Top-four farce continues to plod along as former titans serve up damp-squib fare

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 1

In full flight: Paul Pogba of Manchester United goes to ground after a challenge from Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
In full flight: Paul Pogba of Manchester United goes to ground after a challenge from Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Jonathan Liew

This was a game that both sides had to win, and so in a way it was entirely fitting that neither of them did.

At the end of a discordant and often fractious 90 minutes that felt occasionally like a chore and occasionally like a war, Old Trafford reverberated to the sound of grumbles.

"We'll race you back south," the Chelsea fans sang to their United counterparts. Even the songs felt a little staid and forced.

In fact, very little that either team tried seemed to work here, at either end of the pitch.

Juan Mata put United ahead early on after one of the very few moments of real quality on show all game; Marcos Alonso equalised just before half-time after another coconut-fisted effort from David de Gea; and what remained was the sight of two teams cancelling each other, and occasionally themselves, out.

As the game began to drag, as the injuries and free-kicks began to pile up on both sides, it was hard not to see this game as a microcosm of both teams' seasons.

Manchester United's Victor Lindelof (left) and Chelsea's Eden Hazard battle for the ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United's Victor Lindelof (left) and Chelsea's Eden Hazard battle for the ball. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Two sides who have shown glimpses of class, but whose current predicament stems from an inability to put together a complete performance.

Perhaps that was a touch harsh on United, who had just about the better of the game, and indeed would have won it had it not been for that single lapse of concentration just before half-time. Mata, on his 31st birthday, made a successful return to the first-team after three games out.

Romelu Lukaku, who created his goal with a delightful chip into the channel, looked near his smooth and slippery best.

Luke Shaw, who latched onto Lukaku's run and cut the ball cleverly across for Mata, was a vivacious presence on the left flank. Those three were probably the pick of the bunch for United.

Manchester United's Marcos Rojo fouls Chelsea's Willian. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester United's Marcos Rojo fouls Chelsea's Willian. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

For Chelsea, meanwhile, further evidence that when Eden Hazard fails to show, so do they.

Lightweight

They are still waiting for their first clean sheet away from home in the league this year, and even if the back four were tidy enough, they still looked a touch lightweight going forward.

Gonzalo Higuain, in particular, cut a strangely pitiable figure up front, plodding forlornly after lost causes like a young World War I private sent over the top, boots caked in mud, bayonet drooping sadly at his side, a crumpled photo of his darling Mabel in his top pocket.

Manchester United's Juan Mata scores his side's goal. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United's Juan Mata scores his side's goal. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

When he was presented with a golden opportunity to win the game in the 97th minute, he offered not the slightest hint that he would take it, and it was with a certain dull inevitability that the ball thudded off De Gea's shoulder and out for a corner.

Remember when Chelsea looked like they might be title contenders? It wasn't so long ago, although it feels that way.

They went 18 games unbeaten at the start of the season. As recently as November, they were ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.

But over the months, the ease with which they let teams pass the ball into their penalty area has been their undoing.

When they click they're a fine team, but at the moment there's too much suit, and not enough brute.

Certainly the physical nature of the game seemed to suit United better. Cesar Azpilicueta, for one, will wake up this morning with a few bruises, having been sent into the photographer's pit by a WWE-style body slam from Lukaku in the first half, and then taken an arm in the face from Nemanja Matic just minutes later.

Antonio Rudiger limped off in the second half with what looked worryingly like a recurrence of his left knee injury, and Marcos Rojo could quite easily have seen red late on for a horrible challenge on Willian.

And of course, no discussion of United shithousery would be complete without Ander Herrera, who undertook his now-customary one-man hit-job on Hazard with relish.

Chelsea could certainly give as good as they got at times - Jorginho piling into Paul Pogba, for example - but as a rule, the more concussive the game got, the less they liked it.

As if to prove the point, when they equalised with two minutes until half-time, it was with scarcely a red shirt anywhere near them.

De Gea will carry the can for failing to hold on to Rudiger's shot from distance, allowing Alonso to bundle in from close range.

But why was Rudiger allowed so much time to shoot in the first place? No wonder Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wore a look of thunder as the teams trooped off at the break.

And so the second half was pretty much as you were: a holding pattern in which little of note was really created. Andreas Christensen came on for the luckless Rudiger, Eric Bailly was also forced to hobble off after lying on the turf for several minutes, and when Marcus Rashford was withdrawn for Sanchez the game's rambunctious character had virtually been guaranteed.

With nine minutes left, the fourth official's board went up. Off came Mata, one of the game's primary creators. On came Scott McTominay in his place. In many ways, it was the substitution the game deserved.

Pedro blazed a shot over and then cleared Rojo's header over the line. Higuain passed up his shot at glory. And so there we had it: two teams with neither the quality to win the game, nor the languor to lose it.

In a top-four race increasingly resembling a Zucker Brothers farce, perhaps the only real comfort for these two, and Arsenal, is each others' ineptitude. (© Independent News Service)

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