In midweek, Chelsea didn't really bother turning up until the final 20 minutes and therefore had to settle for a point, with terrific goalkeeping denying Diego Costa a late winner. On Sunday -- and forgive me if this sounds familiar -- Chelsea didn't really bother turning up until the final 20 minutes and therefore had to settle for a point, with terrific goalkeeping denying Diego Costa a late winner. At least someone scored this time.
The Blues were unchanged from their misadventure at Vicarage Road and played the first half in more or less way. Nothing was sticking going forward, and although the defence was robust enough the transitional play was embarrassing. This, perhaps, is the natural consequence of using John Obi Mikel as a midfield partner for the ghost of Nemanja Matic. Neither can be relied on to drive a team forward, and as a result Chelsea possession felt like a placeholder for Manchester United's attacks.
Fortunately those attacks weren't leading to real chances. Thibaut Courtois did save well when Anthony Martial curled a hopeful attempt his way, but for the most part the visitors' pressure was turned into fairly useless corners without much fuss. It was nevertheless vaguely unpleasant to sit through, like being woken up at 3 a.m. by a dog barking non-stop three streets away.
Chelsea found their feet half an hour in and might consider themselves unlucky not to have gone ahead before the break. Oscar played Costa in with a frighteningly good pass, but although his shot beat David de Gea (difficult to do, as we found out later), it dribbled beyond the far post. Then, on the stroke of half time, the Blues were denied a penalty.
With the midfield not doing much to help going forward, the centre backs took matters into their own hands, both making driving runs up the pitch in an attempt to create openings. Kurt Zouma's attempt was ended rather abruptly when he ran into a curiously placed statue of Michael Carrick, but John Terry did better when he had his turn, breaking into the box, finding a loose ball, and firing ... at Daley Blind's elbow.
The shot was definitely on target, although it's not clear whether de Gea would have been able to make the stop. What was less clear was whether Blind's elbow was in whatever 'a natural position' means. Michael Oliver decided it was not, and so Chelsea got a corner out of the brouhaha. On another day they might have been handed a penalty and a red card.
It was at least a positive note on which to end the half. United's defence was beginning to look vulnerable and the Blues were pouring on the pressure, so goal or not the team might have been feeling good about its chances going into the break. And indeed the first real action of the second half looked like it would be a prime scoring chance for Chelsea, with Costa making a smart run between the lines only for Willian to completely fluff the pass.
Momentum then began swinging the other direction, with Martial, Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard all finding space and spraying the ball towards Courtois. It was enough to send Zouma in particular a little crazy, and he stepped up with an aggressiveness that we haven't seen much of since he arrived at Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately, that drive cost him rather than United.
Mikel put Chelsea in trouble after waving lazily at a loose ball and punting it straight up. Zouma opted to clear everything out, flying in with a ferocious volley. Unfortunately, he didn't stick the landing, appearing to badly hyperextend his knee when he came to ground. The screams were extraordinarily discouraging, and it took several minutes for the big defender to be stretchered off the pitch.
Gary Cahill came on in his place but had hardly time to get settled before the visitors took the lead. They'd been knocking at the door for a little bit, but it took a special effort to beat Courtois. A cross from the right turned into a loose ball, and before Cesar Azpilicueta could clear, Lingard crushed a delightful spinning half-volley into the top corner.
Going down brought a positive response from Chelsea. Eden Hazard was already on the pitch, a 55th-minute sub for Oscar, but Pedro was added to the fray as well, allowing Cesc Fabregas to drop into central midfield and dictate play. With United dropping back to defend their lead, space was there to attack. And boy did the Blues attack it.
No other goalkeeper in the league stops Branislav Ivanovic's volley. Not one. The ball had popped up for him beautifully, he'd caught it beautifully and directed it somewhere on target that wasn't right down de Gea's throat. From eight yards out and with that kind of power, you'd expect the ball to find the net almost every time. Yet up came a hand to parry clear.
Fabregas encountered a similar issue shortly thereafter. Combining smartly with Hazard and breaking free in the box, he opted for close-range power only to watch as de Gea palmed away for a corner. A similar opportunity was wasted shortly thereafter, although this time not by de Gea, when a mix up between Costa and Hazard saw a flick roll out for a goal kick (and a furious lecture directed Hazard's way).
With Chelsea devoted to the attack you might have expected United to find holes in the back, but they only put together one serious counterattack, which was utterly wasted by Memphis Depay. Despite the pedigree, I don't really know what he's meant to be good at. On today's evidence it's not passing, because he managed to turn an easy two on one to a straightforward claim by Courtois.
By then the match had gone into injury time, which thanks to Zouma's injury was six minutes long. Last time they'd been chasing a game at the Bridge, Chelsea needed more than that. This time around, they were a little more efficient. Fabregas found Costa with a delightfully simple forward ball, and the striker, kept onside by Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, was able to navigate a furious slide tackle, round the goalkeeper and slot in.
With a point secured, there was still time for a winner, and if not for de Gea Costa would have found one. Alas, de Gea is real, and turned the striker's near post effort aside to deny the Blues two points.