Manchester United’s slender hopes of a top four finish were dealt an almost fatal blow as they drew 1-1 at home to Chelsea on Sunday. Juan Mata capped an impressive United start with an early goal, though a David de Gea blunder on the stroke of halftime meant the Reds were held to a draw in a game that they really needed to win.
Chelsea were given an early glimpse of United’s threat when Luke Shaw found Romelu Lukaku with a perfectly weighted ball over the top of the Blues’ defence. However, the big Belgian’s second touch didn’t match his velcrolike first, and Antonio Rüdiger caught up to distract him at the near post.
Though the visitors survived their first scare, they weren’t so lucky the second time around. Some fantastic United build-up saw Lukaku returning Shaw’s favour, finding the left-back with a delicate chipped pass that Gianfranco Zola — watching on from the bench as Chelsea’s assistant head coach — would’ve been proud of in his prime. Shaw squared the ball across the penalty area, and Mata was on hand to net his first league goal since the turn of the year.
Chelsea responded with a greater command of possession, but struggled to convert their control into goalscoring opportunities. United instead looked the more threatening, and Eric Bailly went within inches of glancing an Ashley Young corner home just short of the half-hour. Kepa Arrizabalaga was beaten, but so was the far post.
That only made it more infuriating when United’s hard work was undone just before the break by yet another de Gea howler. We’d say uncharacteristic mistake, but such lapses have become all too frequent in recent weeks. A long-range Rüdiger drive looked innocuous enough, and didn’t bounce before arriving at de Gea, though he could only spill it straight into the path of the onrushing Marcos Alonso. The Spaniard scooped the rebound home from the tight angle, and Chelsea were level.
The damage had been done, and United’s spell broken. The second half was a more fitful affair, made more so by injuries on either side. United lost Bailly with 20 minutes remaining, the Ivorian limping off to be replaced by Marcos Rojo. It’d be surprising if we see him again this season. Neither goalkeeper had much to do, and given de Gea’s recent form, it was some wonder Chelsea weren’t peppering him with shots at the earliest opportunity.
As it was, the clock ticked on with very little happening, the exception a late save from de Gea to deny Gonzalo Higuaín at the near post. The final whistle sounded with the scores still level. Three points and two places behind fourth-placed Chelsea with just two games left to play, United’s hopes of playing Champions League football next season now look very faint indeed.