Jesse Lingard was the hero for Manchester United on Sunday afternoon as he stepped off the bench to head home the winner for the Reds and secure a vital 2-1 victory over Chelsea. Playing in front of an expectant Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho’s men fell behind to a powerful Willian strike, before Romelu Lukaku, coming up against his former side, dragged the hosts back in the game with a well-taken equaliser minutes before the half-time interval. United went into this clash on the back of a disappointing goalless stalemate away to Sevilla on Wednesday night, whilst the Blues were full of confidence following their impressive 1-1 draw against Barcelona.
Mourinho recalled Paul Pogba into his starting XI, with the Frenchman lining up alongside former Blues midfielder Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as part of a midfield three. Further up the pitch, Juan Mata dropped out of the side and was replaced by Anthony Martial, who was stationed on the left flank.
The hosts made a sluggish start to proceedings and very nearly fell behind within the opening five minutes. A long ball over the top by Chelsea centre-back Antonio Rudiger found Eden Hazard, who picked out an advanced Marcos Alonso on the left wing. The Spaniard’s wicked delivery into the box was met by Alvaro Morata, whose effort came smashing back off the crossbar, before David de Gea was forced into a fine save from the rebound, tipping the ball behind the goal.
Chelsea’s fast start seemed to take United by surprise, as the hosts struggled to piece together a meaningful attack and were often laboured in possession. The Reds’ first sight of goal came nearly 30 minutes in, Martial picked out Alexis Sanchez who had made a darting run into the box, only for the Chilean to fail to get the ball under his control and could only poke a tame effort into Thibaut Courtois’ hands. Just as United seemed to be growing in confidence and exerting sustained pressure on the Blues’ defence, they fell behind to a quick Chelsea counter-attack.
After a poor Antonio Valencia cross was headed away by Victor Moses, Willian carried the ball forward before finding Hazard in space, with the Belgium international attracting the attention of three red shirts. Taking advantage of the space afforded to the Brazilian, Willian simply ran behind the United defence, receiving the return ball from Hazard before firing in an unstoppable drive past de Gea to put the visitors a goal up.
United, however, were not behind for long. Just a few minutes after conceding, the hosts equalised with a well-worked goal that saw Lukaku bag his 22nd strike of the campaign. Sanchez, who had been on the fringes of this game up until this point, collected the ball on the edge of the box and picked out Martial. The Frenchman did well with his back to goal to play in Lukaku, who needed just one touch to set himself before calmly steering a low shot past a helpless Courtois, much to the delight of the home crowd.
United seemed to grow in confidence following the Belgian’s strike and went into the half-time interval with the wind in their sails.
However, the second 45 minutes saw both sides adopt a more cautionary approach, with any real goalscoring opportunities becoming few and far between. It took a while for United to call Courtois into action, though when they did, the Belgian shot-stopper pulled off a save of the highest order. As the Reds committed men forward in search of the lead, Sanchez, wriggling away from a couple of Chelsea defenders, found Lukaku with a pinpoint left-footed cross and the former Everton man’s acrobatic bicycle kick seemed to be heading into the back of the net until Courtois tipped the ball over the crossbar.
United could smell blood and minutes later they had the lead, as Lukaku turned provider. Finding himself on the right wing, the Reds’ summer signing danced past Rudiger before delivering a delightful ball into the box, which was superbly met by the substitute Lingard, who headed the ball past Courtois and wheeled off in celebration.
Mourinho threw on Eric Bailly shortly after the ball had hit the back of the net as he looked to see out the remainder of the game, however, there was still time for some late controversy. With normal time almost up, Morata put the ball into the back of the net following a clever pass from Cesc Fabregas, only for the forward to have his strike ruled out for offside. Replays, though, seemed to suggest that the Spain international was onside when Fabregas played the ball.
Despite some late Chelsea pressure, United held on to secure all three points and return to second place, extending the gap between themselves and the fifth-placed Blues to six points. Whilst the football may not have been pretty, the win could prove to be huge, come the end of the season.
Next up for United is a trip to struggling Crystal Palace on Monday night as they look to strengthen their grip on second place and build up momentum ahead of their crunch Champions League clash at home to Sevilla in a couple of weeks’ time.