Resilient Chelsea breaks Manchester United's resistance, and dents its title challenge

Alvaro Morata and Caesar Azpilicueta celebrate Morata’s fifth goal off an Azpilicueta assist of the season. (Getty)

The Premier League title cannot be won in early November. But on a day when the league-leaders eased to a win in one of two top-six clashes, the other was a damning indictment of what had appeared to be the title race’s other main contestant.

Manchester United was thoroughly outplayed by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Alvaro Morata’s second-half header condemned the Red Devils to a 1-0 defeat, and sent Jose Mourinho’s team tumbling to an eight-point deficit at the top of the Premier League table.

Manchester City’s lead is not insurmountable. But hours after the Citizens dazzled, and cruised past an actually-quite-decent Arsenal, United’s performance provided a stark contrast. Mourinho’s side flew out of the gates, then sunk into an inferior position. And whereas Liverpool and Tottenham previously had been unable to puncture United’s shell, Morata did:

Marouane Fellaini entered the fray after Morata’s goal, and was the protagonist of a chaotic final five minutes in the Chelsea penalty area. He forced a save out of Thibaut Courtois, then howled for a penalty after being manhandled by Gary Cahill. But United couldn’t nick an equalizer. And frankly, it didn’t deserve one.

The game was far more eventful than recent affairs involving United or Chelsea and other top teams. Given the evidence of those matches, the first 15 minutes were surprisingly open. Both Mourinho and Antonio Conte have a track record of shutting up shop against their equals, but there were no conservative approaches on Sunday. At least not from the off. And there were plenty of chances.

Chelsea had the first – or rather Phil Jones did. Marcos Alonso had time and space to whip in a cross from the left toward Morata, who was one-on-one with Jones. Jones sliced his clearance into the top corner of his own net, but Morata had made contact with the English defender from behind, and the own goal was ruled out for a foul.

Marcus Rashford had United’s first chance at the other end minutes later. Ashley Young looped a cross into a penalty box occupied by three United front men. Chelsea’s center backs got sucked toward Romelu Lukaku, which left Rashford free, but the 20-year-old, perhaps put off by a charging Courtois, looped his header just over the bar.

United fashioned one more chance when Nemanja Matic wove his way through midfield, Lukaku turned Andreas Christensen and then fired a 20-yard drive that was pushed away by Courtois. As the half wore on, though, United receded, Chelsea dictated the game, and the hosts very easily could have scored.

The best chance of the half, and probably the game, fell to Tiemoue Bakayoko. Cesc Fabregas played Davide Zappacosta in down the right, and the Italian wing-back’s cross trickled through to Bakayoko, who was alone 10 yards from goal. He mishit the bouncing ball though, and sent it high and wide.

Eden Hazard, who combined well with Morata for much of the evening, also troubled David De Gea in the United net. The Belgian winger cut inside from the right and stung De Gea’s palms with a left-footed shot. Fabregas raced in for the rebound, but the ball was at an awkward height when he arrived, and the Spaniard skewed his header wide from the doorstep.

United’s attacking influence waned as the half wore on, in part due to N’Golo Kante. Kante returned to the Chelsea starting lineup after an injury layoff, and plugged up all leaks in midfield. As United dropped off, it had difficulty launching counters because Kante sprinted sideline to sideline to break them up.

Chelsea’s superiority carried into the second half. Eight minutes in, Hazard found himself free in the box, but sent a first-time left-footed shot right down the throat of De Gea.

The trend of free runners eventually led to the goal, though. One of Bakayoko’s many forays forward drew Chris Smalling, and left Morata free:


Morata’s header was textbook. It was also exactly what Chelsea desperately needed.

The Blues hit a new low on Tuesday in a 3-0 loss to Roma. Conte dropped David Luiz after a shocking Champions League display, and amid reports of training ground tension. Yet more details emerged of the club’s behind-the-scenes instability. But Conte coaxed passion, quality and cohesion out of the 11 he picked, and, for seemingly the third or fourth time this season, talk of a crisis has been quelled.

United, on the other hand, was tactically and technically inferior for most of the game. Lukaku and Rashford failed to connect, despite Mourinho opting again to pair them as a front two in a 3-5-2. The result was an inauspicious performance, and a title race that is significantly more one-sided than it was entering the day.

The Red Devils are still without Paul Pogba, a sizable asterisk beside the growing gap between them and their cross-town rivals. And they aren’t City’s only competition. Tottenham is the second-best team in the league, and Chelsea could still have its say.

But even in recent victories, United’s lack of attacking output had provoked skepticism. Mourinho’s approach had prompted questions. Sunday provided some answers. And the answers weren’t kind.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.