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Relentless work and spirit pays off for Chelsea in dominant 1-0 win over Manchester United

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

In the days before the Clash of Ages of Chelsea, much of the focus was on Antonio Conte and José Mourinho. But on game day, attentions finally turned to the pitch, and were rewarded by a highly entertaining match and a Chelsea victory, as the Blues ran out deserved winners of a 1-0 affair at Stamford Bridge.

Conte made a couple big changes to start, dropping both Antonio Rüdiger and David Luiz — the latter not even featuring as a bench option, either by injury, tactical option, or discord with Conte, or a combination of the three — and handing a start to young Andreas Christensen at the heart of the back line. Captain Gary Cahill kept his spot, this time playing on the (right) left side of the pitch, with César Azpilicueta also restored to his usual position. But the big news was the return of midfielder N'Golo Kanté, who started alongside Cesc Fábregas and Tiemoué Bakayoko in the 3-5-2 shape Chelsea have employed for almost all of our big games this season.

For the visitors, the former Chelsea boss picked the same 3-4-1-2 and personnel that beat Tottenham 1-0 at Old Trafford last weekend. Paul Pogba's absence continued to be filled by Ander Herrera, who occupied the spot next to former Blues midfielder Nemanja Matic. Meanwhile, another former Chelsea player in Romelu Lukaku lead the charge up front.

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

United settled quicker and almost uncharacteristically for Mourinho’s usual big-game tactics, looked to control the tempo and dominate through possession. But this just opened opportunities for Chelsea on the counter, and after missing a glorious opportunity, the Blues duly took the lead after one such break when Phil Jones blasted into the back of his own net instead of clearing the ball ... or we would have, had referee Anthony Taylor not invented a foul on Jones by Morata and ruled out the goal instead.

United answered quickly with a big chance of their own, but a wide-open Marcus Rashford nodded his header above the goal That miss marked the end of United's positive play, as Chelsea started to take control of the game.

Kanté's much-missed presence (and Pogba's absence) was a huge difference-maker, with the Premier League’s Player of the Year breaking up all of United’s attempts to play through the middle and freeing up Fàbregas and Bakayoko to influence the game at the other end. The latter operated almost as a third forward at times, while the former was spraying passes around like it was last season.

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

With Chelsea taking the initiative, the game increased in tempo. United did call Courtois into action on a classic Lukaku play, turning and shooting in one swift movement, but otherwise it was all Chelsea and a goal appeared to be only a matter of time. Thanks to our continued woes in finishing and finding the final pass or cross, as well as a few nice saves from De Gea, we would have to wait for that goal a fair bit longer. Chelsea had a clear advantage in almost every phase of the game, but misses by Hazard, Morata, Zappacosta, Christensen, and Bakayoko meant that we headed into half-time scoreless.

That also however meant that the defence were doing just fine despite David Luiz’s absence, with Christensen & Co shackling Lukaku and Mkhitaryan, while Kanté, of course, was magnificent. Chelsea had a clear path to winning this game, but would need to actually find a goal in the second 45.

The second half continued where the first half left off, with Chelsea dominating play, United dropping back and fouling, and referee Anthony Taylor letting them get away with it. But even as he was not in the mood to send off one of their players despite getting several chances to do so, Chelsea just kept working and eventually were rewarded with a goal.

When the goal arrived, we had to make sure it was not just a replay from one of the previous four Azpilicueta-to-Morata cross connection goals.

With the ball at his feet and the vision of a hawk, Cesc found Azpilicueta free on his right and with loads of space to run into. Rashford missed the interception, and Azpi took the ball forward as he likes to do. From his perfect spot off the right side of United's penalty area, he crossed for Morata. Morata had been desperate to get back on the scoresheet after a few subpar performances, but his magnificent header showed no signs of any lack of confidence.

Azpilicueta's fifth assist of the season — both overall and to Morata — forced United to come out of their shell. "Super-subs" Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial arrived in place of Jones and Mkhitaryan at the hour mark, with Conte responding a few minutes later by bringing on Antonio Rüdiger and pushing Azpilicueta out wide for the departing Zappacosta.

It was Chelsea who reaped the rewards from these changes, with Fellaini gifting the ball to the Blues almost straight away (Morata overplaying the chance eventually), and United looking discombobulated and uncoordinated as they tried to push forward. That Chelsea failed to make them pay for it — Bakayoko, Hazard, Morata all had chances — meant that we were in for a closer final few minutes than we ever really should have been.

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Mourinho played his final card by bringing on Lingard for Ashley Young at wing-back while Conte just added fresh legs in Drinkwater (for Fàbregas) and Willian (for Hazard) in the final ten minutes. More so than the changes, Chelsea dropping back too far in defense — despite Conte’s continuous screaming and passing of notes on the touchline — signaled the visitors’ most dangerous period of the game.

Their gameplan, as ever, was to go long to Fellaini and fight for the second ball, but Courtois stood tall when he was required to and the Blues defended well enough overall to keep the second successive clean sheet and second successive 1-0 victory in the Premier League. There was time for Chelsea to add a couple more chances to the litany of misses (Morata trying to dribble too much once again), while Rashford came close with a free kick as time expired.

And then, it was all over for United. 1-0 to the good guys!

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

A win over United is always a great accomplishment, even if they now have only 1 win in their last 16 visits to Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. In light of the recent rumors and narrative nonsense, the win (and the performance within) is even sweeter

All in all, it was a perfect way to enter the last international break of the year

Forza, Chelsea!


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