Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table is slashed to just four points after Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side inflicted a bruising 2-0 defeat.
Mourinho, who has lost both games against Chelsea since taking charge at United, made it third time lucky, with Rashford opening the scoring after seven minutes and Herrera making sure early in the second half.
The Blues, who were unbeaten in 12 matches against Manchester United in all competitions, could have no complaints, with all players conspicuous by their absence for their second wobble in four.
With no shot on target for the first time in a decade, and with Tottenham playing yesterday to a resounding 4-0 win, it blows the title race wide opened, with the two sides coming together at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final next weekend.
It was the start Chelsea did not want, before a ball was even kicked. A full-strength squad for Conte yesterday in his pre-match press conference saw two key first-team players injured before the first whistle was even blew, with Courtois declared unfit in the morning and Alonso picking up an injury with ten minutes before kick-off.
Begovic and Zouma was quickly introduced in a make-shift line-up for the visitors, but the Blues were all at sea in the first half.
Despite Manchester United’s top scorer being on the bench, Rashford’s pace was tearing the Blues apart all half. The Englishman was through within just four minutes after another Luiz mistake, whilst Chelsea did not heed their warning three minutes later and were punished.
Herrera broke forward after handling the ball which went unspotted by Bobby Madley, and an inch-perfect ball played forward to Rashford meant all the 19-year-old had to do was keep his composure in front of Begovic, which he duly did. Chelsea have now conceded in tenconsecutive Premier League games, the worst run without a clean sheet since 1996.
It nearly became worse moments later: Pogba’s pass this time evaded Cahill who was causing the errors, but Rashford was wide this time, although he did have another chance when Young broke free on the left and drove a low ball across the Chelsea penalty area. The ball evaded everyone, but Rashford would have had a tap-in given Luiz was on the wrong side of his man.
Chance after chance came for the hosts, and particularly for Rashford, who this time broke free on the left and, but for a crucial intervention by Begovic’s right hand, Lingard would have had another tap-in.
By this time Conte had seen enugh and the back-line was switching once more: Moses was to become the left wing-back and Azpilicueta the right.
That did not arrest the Red Devils’ chances down the centre, with Ashley Young afforded acres of space centre to pick his spot from 18 yards. Fortunately, that spot was Row Z, but it was clear Chelsea was struggling.
A quiet game by Costa with his feet meant he felt he had to make up for it with his mouth, and a series of petulant fouls with Pogba and Rojo brought the Spaniard a yellow card. Bobby Madley, at 31 years of age, is a relative newcomer with the big stage, and has only shown one red card in his last 27 Premier League matches, but Costa had to watch his step for the best part of an hour.
Any attempts by the Spaniard to let his feet do the talking was wayward, with a long-range effort going wide, but with the half-time whistle about to be blown, Antonio Conte will have lots more thinking to do regarding Chelsea’s rearguard, who let Young blaze another shot high and wide but from a glorious central position 15 yards from goal.
Will whatever the Italian had to say at half-time reignite Chelsea’s title hopes, which at this point stands at just a four-point lead?
No: it got worse and worse for the league leaders.
A poor mistake by N’Golo Kante to give the ball away in his penalty area was picked up by Young, who found Herrera. All the Spaniard need to do was drill it goalward, and given the sea of Chelsea men in front of him, Begovic was unsighted to see the ball sail past him via a big deflection off Zouma’s legs.
Lingard and Rashford were running rings around the Chelsea defence and the former nearly had his side’s third, and any Chelsea effort at the other end were ambitious tries from range by Pedro.
Moses was sacrificed for Fabregas as Conte reverted to a back four as Azpilicueta switched back to the left, and the midfielder’s free-kick found Costa perfectly but his striking companion let his assist machine down.
Azpilicueta sent a delicious cross-field ball to Pedro who could not make sufficient contact on the stretch, whilst Mourinho reacted to Conte’s midfield change by shoring up his side with Carrick’s introduction.
A Matic mistake saw Rashford race through but his shot hit the side-netting, whilst Conte upped the ante again by bringing Willian on for Matic.
A melee in the penalty area from a Chelsea corner nearly saw Costa stab home, but any substantial chance came Rashford’s way, weaving in and out of Luiz and nearly sneaking one past Begovic’s near post.
United have only lost once at home in 37 matches in all competitions and the run would continue. Chelsea go again next weekend, against Tottenham of all clubs, in the FA Cup semi-final.
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Man of the Match
NO-ONE: Did anyone do anything? The defence was leaky, the midfield were out-muscled and the attacking trio of Pedro, Hazard and Costa were kept largely anonymous. Add in the fact Courtois and Alonso suffered pre-match injuries, for which their absences may be longer than one game and whom the 5-2-3 relied heavily on, and all-in-all it was a very poor outing in Manchester for Chelsea. 3/10
Conte admitted his nervousness about the title race situation: “I have concern because we have to work together and find quickly the right ambition to win this title. Tottenham is in good form and playing with enthusiasm, we must find the same. [The fault for today’s loss] is mine. In this case I was not able to do the right motivation. [Manchester United] deserved to win because they showed more desire than us.”
Mourinho was pleased tactically: “Chelsea are the best counter attacking team in the country and we controlled them very well. I do not feel extra joy at beating Chelsea — we beat the leader. It doesn’t matter if the leader is Chelsea or another — we beat them convincingly.”