People have been wondering if Chelsea’s defence could handle the pressure and truly make them title contenders. The answer came on Saturday afternoon.
Two lapses in concentration on defence very nearly cost Chelsea three points at home against Manchester United, but a stoppage-time goal from Ross Barkley saved the Blues from their first defeat of the season, though it might have felt like a defeat.
Antonio Rudiger’s first-half header from a set piece gave Chelsea the lead at the half until two second-half goals from Anthony Martial put the Blues on the brink of defeat. That set the state for Ross Barkley to be the hero, sniffing out a goal after David Luiz’s towering header cannoned off the post and David de Gea made an excellent stop to deny Rudiger a second goal.
It was probably a fair result for both sides. Manchester United showed great spirit and fight in their comeback win against Newcastle United a fortnight ago. But much like the game against Newcastle, for one half, they carried very little threat to the home side and didn’t look as if they would score, except for a headed chance flashed over the bar by Romelu Lukaku.
It allowed Chelsea to gain a foothold in the match, dominating possession in the first half. But Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s main creator, was stifled by a United midfield and defence that seemed determined to not let him be the man to beat them.
Much like previous meetings between the two sides, early on, United seemed to decide the best way to deal with Hazard was to foul him at every opportunity. Just 13 minutes in, Nemanja Matic found himself in the book after two fouls in just four minutes, first cynically tripping Hazard on the edge of his own penalty area and then wrestling him to the ground to stop Hazard from initiating a counter.
Despite dominating possession, the problem for Chelsea was that Hazard seemed to be on a different wavelength than the rest of the Chelsea team. A dangerous cross from Hazard that flashed across the six-yard box was just begging for someone to poke it into the net, but both Alvaro Morata and Willian failed to anticipate the cross and were caught flat-footed.
But it was from the resulting corner that Chelsea struck first. Paul Pogba has shown in the past that marking men on corners isn’t his forte, and Rudiger took advantage of Pogba’s wandering concentration to dart unmarked towards the penalty spot before planting a header past the diving De Gea.
Morata could have added a second just after the restart when a Hazard-led counter attack led to Morata finding space just inside the area. With his back to goal, he took a touch to his right, but he didn’t connect well with a left-footed shot, sending it straight to De Gea.
United were in desperate need of some impetus, and they received some hope just before the hour-mark. Kepa Arrizabalaga did well to save an initial shot from Juan Mata, but Mata reacted quickly and hooked the ball back into the area. Lukaku attacked the ball and clattered Marcos Alonso, sending the full back to the ground.
As Alonso laid just inside the six-yard box, United played on, and Ashley Young’s shot took a deflection off of Jorginho before landing at the feet of Martial who rifled the ball into the net.
United began to sense that all three points might be there for the taking, but they were given a momentary warning that Chelsea were still dangerous at exploiting United’s weakness at set pieces. A whipped-in free kick found David Luiz unmarked in the penalty area, but he glanced his header just wide of the post.
Chelsea paid for that miss moments later. United were playing a much more direct game, and a long ball over the Chelsea midfield saw Mata flick the ball around an out-of-control challenge by David Luiz. Mata squared for Rashford who spotted Martial free on the right. Two touches from Martial later, and a curling shot beat a stranded Arrizabalaga.
But Chelsea didn’t quit, and it set the stage for Barkley’s equaliser in sixth minute of stoppage time, prompting a small melee near the tunnel when Jose Mourinho took offence to a member of the Chelsea staff celebrating in front of the United bench.