With 90 minutes gone at Stamford Bridge, United were deservedly leading 1-0 through an excellent Jesse Lingard goal and on course for their sixth win in eight games during 2016, hardly the record of a manager seemingly under pressure as he faces reports that Jose Mourinho is being interviewed for his job.
But nothing is that simple for United any more; and by the time Costa had grabbed a late equaliser and van Gaal had upped the ante in his increasingly bitter relationship with the media, the picture didn’t look so rosy.
There is no doubt United have moved on from miserable lows of earlier in the season when goalless draws at Old Trafford and unrest in the Stretford End left van Gaal struggling to find allies. In fact, had Chelsea not sacked Mourinho and put him back on the market then perhaps the Dutchman wouldn’t even be a story.
Instead, with reports of behind-the-scenes talks to bring in the Special One a few years before van Gaal’s contract is officially up, the pressure is back on his shoulders and the story is unlikely to go away – especially if he doesn’t learn to leave it alone in post-match press conferences.
“Why does the club have to deny it? When you are creating stories,” he snapped when asked a prickly question about Mourinho’s negotiations. “You haven’t spoken to Ed Woodward and you are inventing stories – and then I have to answer? I don’t answer this question. I should say you are getting the sack tomorrow. What is your name? Then I can announce it. Maybe you have a wife or children or a nephew or something like that who can read it.”
That kind of distraction is a shame because there were signs again here United are finding a rhythm and a confidence which has deserted them for most of the campaign. They produced 17 attempts on goal, more than they have done in any other game this season, and nobody could say it was boring as they took the game to last season’s champions.
“I think it was not a boring match,” said van Gaal. “For the third time in a row it was sparkling so I hope to get the support of the media this week. But when you want to be in the top three, which is our aim, you have to win these kind of games. The gap is growing and growing to the top four.”
It was a match which began in a strange and subdued atmosphere, but also one that grew ever more fascinating as it wore on. Anthony Martial forced Thibaut Courtois into a fine save early on before Chelsea had a big penalty shout when John Terry lashed a shot towards goal right on half time. His effort was clearly handled by Daley Blind as the United man threw himself into a desperate block but referee Michael Oliver refused to give a penalty – a decision Guus Hiddink admitted was wrong.
After the break, United looked increasingly dangerous. Rooney had a shot saved, Martial shot wide and then Courtois produced a stunning save from Lingard, the Chelsea keeper flinging himself full-length to his left.
All the signs were pointing to a goal, and when it came it was spectacular. Borthwick-Jackson overlapped on the left and delivered a low cross which was teed-up by Rooney and then despatched on the spin by Lingard for 1-0.
It was only then Chelsea woke up – and the goalkeeping heroics moved from Courtois to David de Gea. The United man produced a remarkable stop from Ivanovic and then denied Fabregas at his near post before Chelsea’s momentum was disrupted by a serious injury to Kurt Zouma which left him with suspected anterior cruciate ligament damage to his knee.
It seemed the danger was over for United and they were heading for an inmportant victory; but then Costa woke up. In the first minute of injury time he accepted a neat pass from Fabregas, rounded Borthwick-Jackson with the sweetest of touches and finished from an acute angle to save the day for Chelsea.
In the scheme of things a point doesn’t do much for the Blues, who remain in 13th place, despite the frantic celebrations which centred as much on captain Terry, who announced last week he hasn’t been offered a new deal, as on Costa. So the reaction from Hiddink was muted.
“I said before I arrived that our target must still be fourth but I also said we have to start winning,” he admitted. “We are unbeaten but if you want to get to fourth you need victories. We have dropped too many points.”
By the time these two teams face each other again next season, then, an awful lot could have changed – both on and off the pitch.
Courtois 8; Ivanovic 7, Zouma 6 (Cahill 59; 6), Terry 7, Azpilicueta 6; Mikel 6, Matic 6 (Pedro 66; 5); Willian 7, Fabregas 7, Oscar 5 (Hazard 54); Costa 7.
Begovic, Baba, Traore,, Loftus-Cheek.
De Gea 8; Darmian 6, Smalling 7, Blind 6, Borthwick-Jackson 7; Fellaini 6 (Schneiderlin 79), Carrick 7, Mata 7 (Herrera 90), Martial 7, Lingard 7 (Depay 87); Rooney 7.
Romero, Varela, McNair, Perreira.