This is the kind of result to choke talk of a crisis at Chelsea. The Premier League’s summit may remain distant, but the din which erupted inside this arena at the final whistle while Antonio Conte celebrated manically looking up towards the top tier of the east stand said it all. José Mourinho had waited near the mouth of the tunnel to shake his counterpart’s hand but, as the Italian strode out on to the pitch to acknowledge each side of the ground, he eventually gave up. Even he might have conceded this was Conte’s moment.
How the head coach had needed this. As mystifying as it might have seemed given he has now won 37 of his 49 Premier League games, Conte had come into this game under intense pressure. That humiliation in Rome in midweek had left him embattled, all the scrutiny on his relationship with his senior players and the owner as he pleaded for patience in a situation he has long described as “an emergency”.
David Luiz’s absence felt significant here. Asked pre-match whether there was anything more intriguing in his decision not even to include the Brazilian among his substitutes, Conte had offered: “Nothing. It is a tactical decision. A tactical decision. [Andreas] Christensen is in good form and we have [Ethan] Ampadu, who is a good young player. The club likes to bring in a young player.”
Regardless, David Luiz was sitting behind the dug-outs alongside Kenedy, whose untimely yawn in last week’s team debrief had so unimpressed the management, as Conte’s bold decisions paid off. Christensen was composed and assured. N’Golo Kanté, restored to central midfield after hamstring trouble, was at his energetic best to inspire only a second clean sheet in nine matches, with Manchester United reduced to a solitary shot on target until a late rally which threatened to pluck an unlikely point. The hosts, in contrast, had been enterprising and adventurous. That it took Chelsea almost an hour to prise out a lead was almost surprising.
Theirs had been the more urgent approach from the outset, with Eden Hazard’s a pesky presence unnerving the visitors’ back-line and Marcos Alonso driving Antonio Valencia into retreat. It was the Spaniard’s cross which was volleyed inadvertently into the top corner by Phil Jones, under pressure from Álvaro Morata, early on with Chelsea’s players and coaching staff incensed that Anthony Taylor deemed the striker to have pushed the defender to the turf. There had been slight contact on Jones’s back, even if his fall at pace appeared rather clumsy.
The other opportunities carved out were more clear-cut. Tiémoué Bakayoko should have steered a shot from Davide Zappacosta’s centre, via Morata’s touch, beyond David de Gea only for the effort to skew awkwardly wide. That had Conte kicking the advertising hoardings in disbelief. Moments later, Hazard cut inside and ripped a left-footed shot through a mess of bodies which the goalkeeper could only push up rather than away. Cesc Fabregas reached the loose ball but, with Eric Bailly sliding in, could only nod into the side-netting.
Each miss left the head coach agonised. Mourinho occasionally cast a sly glance his way and, more than once, made a bee-line for the fourth official, Craig Pawson, to express his outrage that the Italian was being permitted to escape the confines of his technical area. His own team’s threat had been sporadic. Marcus Rashford, free on the edge of the six-yard box from Ashley Young’s delicious centre, could only loop a header over Thibaut Courtois and on to the roof of the net. When Romelu Lukaku, another former Chelsea player in the visitors’ ranks, was permitted to turn in space just outside the area it took Courtois diving at full stretch to his right to turn away his low drive.
The Portuguese would eventually seek to refresh his options, flinging on Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial, though his side never established any upbeat tempo. Indeed, by the time the cavalry had been called, Mourinho’s team were playing catch-up, the threat of that eight-point gap to Manchester City growing ever larger. They had breathed a sigh of relief when Hazard, free near the penalty spot, could only guide a half volley straight at De Gea, but the marking never improved. Cesar Azpilicueta duly trotted forward unchallenged to fling over one of his trademark crosses from deep which was met emphatically by Morata, exploiting the space between centre-halves with Chris Smalling drawn towards Bakayoko’s run. The Spaniard’s header was glorious, planted beyond a static goalkeeper. It was his first goal since Chelsea won at Atlético Madrid in September.
The concession should have provoked a United onslaught but, with Bakayoko and Hazard going close to adding a second, the visitors mustered little until the frantic final minutes. In the frenzy at the end, Courtois pushed away Fellaini’s volley and Rashford’s free-kick flicked off the wall to veer behind, but United had not done enough to warrant reward. Not for the first time, the sight of Mourinho in the dug-out had provoked a performance from Chelsea.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010