Antonio Conte was Jose Mourinho’s permanent successor as Chelsea boss and last term took a side which finished 10th after imploding under the Portuguese to the title. The pair have exchanged numerous verbal barbs, but there was little interaction here. There was no eye contact in two pre-match handshakes — one in the tunnel, another on the touchline. But none at all at the final whistle.
Morata and Romelu Lukaku each entered the contest without a goal in six games. Morata found space to head in Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross for his first goal since Chelsea won at Atletico Madrid in September. Lukaku is now without a goal in seven games.
The return of N’Golo Kante from a six-game absence with a hamstring injury immediately reinvigorated Chelsea. Cesc Fabregas was free of the defensive responsibility which had troubled him and Tiemoue Bakayoko could roam forwards. Nemanja Matic, twice a title winner with Chelsea, showed his calm authority for United, but the balance offered by Kante enabled Chelsea to win the middle ground.
The main team news was Conte dropping David Luiz. The Brazil defender has been playing with strapping on his right knee, but there were reports Conte and Luiz had a falling out when he was substituted during the draw with Roma last month.
Andreas Christensen, who thrived in two years in the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach, was entrusted to start and thrived defensively — although he spurned a headed chance late in the first half. Gary Cahill reverted to the right side of Chelsea’s back three after Conte admitted a mistake in fielding the captain on the left.
Belgium playmaker Hazard was scintillating in Chelsea’s title win of 2014-15, under Mourinho, and again last season, when Conte’s men lifted the trophy. The forward’s relationship with Mourinho broke down when the Portuguese questioned Hazard, who had a persistent hip/groin injury, in his final months as Chelsea boss.
There was a clear snub of one another as Hazard took to the field and Mourinho shook hands with most other Chelsea players. Ander Herrera was again asked to pay close attention to Hazard, just as he did in two of last season’s three games. And Hazard’s influence was limited as he received a number of hefty challenges, and missed a gilt-edged chance.