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Hazard fires Chelsea past Manchester United

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“On another day we would score three or four goals. We knew we had the players who could dominate. We are proud of the performance.”

-Wayne Rooney.

“In my opinion it was the best performance we have had this season. We were not effective because we have created, despite the defensive organisation of Chelsea, three chances in the first half and eight in the second half.”

-Louis van Gaal.

If we were warming up for the big game next weekend at the Emirates, we couldn't have had much better practice opposition than Manchester United today. The play was Arsenal in a nutshell, mistaking possession in the middle third for threat and then being surprised when mistakes in possession were seized upon and punished. We got a bad impression of the Gunners after the match as well, with both Rooney and Louis van Gaal jumping straight into the magical realm of Wengerland in order to pretend that a loss was actually a win.

But despite the upbeat/deluded comments coming from the United camp, it was Chelsea's day all along. It was a classic performance from Jose Mourinho's side against a team that needed to win more than we did, and the visitors' early 'dominance' counted for very little. Sure, there were some scares, mostly to do with Luke Shaw being given the freedom of the left flank by Oscar, but United's best hope in the first half was a shot from outside just inside the box which ended up being driven into the stanchion by Rooney.

David de Gea's celebrations -- he thought the ball had gone in -- were comical, but Rooney's effort showed the danger of allowing Kurt Zouma to follow Marouane Fellaini wide without anyone tracking runners in midfield, and slowly but surely Chelsea reorganised themselves to cut out the threat. And once they'd found their shape, United could do virtually nothing to penetrate it.

And if they were trying hard to penetrate, it didn't really show. Ander Herrera was cool and composed as a defensive midfielder but failed to apply any incisive touches through the middle, and the rest of the play seemed to hope that fullback overloads could magically turn into goals. As it turned out, they did not.

Just as the visitors were running out of steam on their first push, Chelsea struck. The goal, however, was proceeded by a few comical moments, with David de Gea handling outside his box on a counterattack and somehow avoiding a free kick, let alone red card, and then Fellaini getting away with grabbing the ball in expectation of a foul when there was none given, which was again ignored by Mike Dean.

The referee's neglect of United's misdemeanours set the tone for the opener. Chris Smalling played a hospital pass forward for Radamel Falcao, who was promptly steamrolled by John Terry. The ball broke loose for Cesc Fabregas, who spotted Oscar unmarked between the centrebacks. The Brazilian was closed down by Smalling, who prevented him from turning, but a smart backheel into the vacated space set Eden Hazard free, and a cool nutmegged finish later the Blues were 1-0 up.

Halftime came and went without much incident, although Courtois had to be alert to scamper off his line and clear before Falcao nipped in after perhaps the only passing move of note that the visitors conjured up, but it was pretty obvious that everything was going according to plan for Chelsea. Fellaini was being marked out of the game by Zouma, Ashley Young was struggling against Branislav Ivanovic, and so effective was Cesar Azpilicueta at dealing with Juan Mata that the former Blue was essentially on the retreat from his compatriot whenever the ball turned up in the Chelsea left.

Things could have gone slightly more to plan had we made it 2-0 early in the second half. Didier Drogba, who huffed and puffed to rather more effect than at Loftus Road, beating up a pair of defenders young enough to be his children in the process, trundled into de Gea's box and sent in a looping, deflected cross that was met by Hazard at the back post, but with the angle against him the Belgian could only turn it against the post.

A second goal turned out to be a luxury rather than a necessity, however, because United were having just as much trouble creating chances in the second half as they were in the first. They did manage to slip through the back line once, with Falcao escaping Zouma and racing onto a nice pass from Shaw, but despite Courtois going down too early the Colombian only managed to smash the ball against the upright with the goal gaping.

There were to be no further chances conceded, although Shaw and Angel di Maria did link up to cause some trouble down the left before the former was removed for Tyler Blackett. Aside from those sallies forward by the Premier League's most expensive player, Chelsea were controlling the game admirably, epitomised by Zouma mugging Fellaini on halfway and burning valuable time by lumbering straight for the corner flag. With 15 minutes left to play.

Despite the dearth of scoring opportunities, the visitors had one last hope of snatching a point at the death, just as they managed in the reverse fixture back in the autumn. But Chelsea nerves after Gary Cahill and Herrera tangled in the box quickly turned into laughs -- Dean showed the United midfielder a yellow card for simulation, and blew for full time shortly thereafter.

The twin matches against United and Arsenal, both of whom came into the weekend as the league's form teams, has been billed as pivotal in our chase for the Premier League title. In truth, losses in both would still have left us in commanding position, but it's nice to have the first out of the way without so much as a scratch. Nine points from six games now secures the title, and with a visit to the Gunners coming up in a week, it could be three very soon.

Just a little longer now, Chelsea. We're nearly there.