Roman Abramovich replaced local hero Frank Lampard with German tactician Thomas Tuchel six weeks ago, He asked for a place in the top four and a Champions League run in return. He might just get what he wants.
Chelsea’s uniquely demanding quick-fix Russian owner is well on his way to being proved right, as this scoreless draw with Manchester United took his club one point shy of fourth just days after a win at Atletico Madrid all but assured them of a quarter-final place in Europe too.
An unremarkable draw, which was probably a fair result, extended United’s remarkable unbeaten away run to 20. It also effectively ended their faint title hopes as they stay second but are now 12 points behind leaders Man City with 12 games to go.
Tuchel conceded afterwards: “I feel we deserved to win, but we are not yet at a level where we are clinical enough to win games like this. We are a difficult team to play against, even though we had to suffer in moments of the game. It was a high-level game between two good teams.
“We are back in the competition for a top-four place and we are very competitive in every match again.”
Tuchel’s high-tempo tactics and three changes to the team that won in Spain last Tuesday made for an electric start from his side. Solskjaer’s four sets of fresh legs from United’s Europa League fixture on Thursday were slower to get up to speed.
Both sets of players looked fatigued by the end. The pace and energy dropped off, but at least the few of us lucky enough to be here can say they saw the first time Chelsea and United have drawn both league meetings since 1922.
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: “We are not scoring enough goals. It was a good clean sheet, and the next step is to win these games. We should have had a penalty, which I would have backed Bruno to score, but we did not have the quality in the last third.”
Chelsea’s good start resulted in a few worrying moments for United, but the early drama was at the other end of the pitch. We were treated to a dipping Marcus Rashford free kick which keeper Edouard Mendy was relieved to block with his fists.
Then VAR stepped in to ask referee Stuart Attwell to check for a possible Callum Hudson-Odoi handball, with a furious Solskjaer claiming afterwards that it was a clear penalty. He intimated his side were only denied because there is a move to stop the trend of United getting penalty awards in big matches.
The Norwegian coach added: “The penalty has gone, but I am concerned we do not get them after all the noise a month or two again about us getting too many penalties. Managers have influenced the referees, and they shouldn’t, but that is the nature of this job. I trust the referees to not be influenced, but I was very surprised by the decision when I looked at the video.”
Chelsea survived both dramatic pauses unscathed, but the delays disrupted the flow of the match and it took a while before they could dictate play again. United are comfortable on the counter-attack, though, and had won their last three matches at Stamford Bridge so did not look unduly concerned.
As the game grew scrappy, Hudson-Odoi, supposedly back in Tuchel’s good books after being subbed as a substitute and publicly criticised at Southampton last weekend, took advantage of two United lapses by shooting a volley narrowly wide and crossing superbly to present Olivier Giroud with a chance to score with a diving header.
United remained unruffled, and their cause was possibly aided when Hudson-Odoi was replaced for the second half by defender Reece James. Tuchel claimed it was decision based on tactics and injury.
James can get forward too, and he soon had a powerful shot blocked as he reacted to the rebound of David de Gea’s save from a smart Hakim Ziyech shot.
That sparked a long spell of Chelsea pressure that was only broken by a neat piece of individual skill and a promising shot from Greenwood which was quickly followed by a great Mendy save from a Scott McTominay effort.
Now United played with some of their trademark vigour, and another flowing attack involving Luke Shaw, Rashford, and Greenwood ended with a Fred shot that scraped past a post. A brilliant piece of Victor Lindelof defending denied Chelsea substitute Werner a late winner at the other end.
United captain Harry Maguire blasted a weary, frustrated shot high and wide moments after the final whistle prompting a number of players to crash to the pitch in exhaustion. The match was over and so is their title race, if it wasn’t already.
CHELSEA: Mendy 7, Azpilicueta 6, Christensen 6, Rudiger 7, Hudson-Odoi 7 (James 45), Kante 7, Kovacic 6, Chilwell 6, Ziyech 6 (Werner 78), Mount 8, Giroud 5 (Pulisic 65).
Substitutes: Arrizabalaga, Alonso, Jorginho, Zouma, Havertz, Emerson.
MAN UTD: De Gea 7, Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 7, Maguire 7, Shaw 6, McTominay, Fred, Greenwood 6 (Martial 78), Fernandes 6, James 6, Rashford 6.
Substitutes: Henderson, Bailly, Martial, Diallo, Telles, Matic, Williams, van de Beek, Tuanzebe.
Ref: Stuart Attwell 6