ANDER Herrera scored one goal, set up another and executed the perfect man-marking job on Eden Hazard to set up Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea that opened up the Premier League title race.
United didn’t even need rested top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to consign the leaders to their fifth league loss of the season, which left them only four points ahead of Tottenham with six games left.
Marcus Rashford – Ibrahimovic’s 19-year-old replacement up front – ran onto Herrera’s through-ball to give United a seventh-minute lead. A constant menace for Chelsea’s defense with his mobility and direct approach, Rashford ensured Ibrahimovic wasn’t missed at Old Trafford.
Herrera shadowed Hazard in a tactical plan by United manager Jose Mourinho that limited the effectiveness of Chelsea’s main attacking threat. On a rare occasion he left Hazard’s side, Herrera popped up in Chelsea’s area in the 49th minute to smash a deflected shot high into the net from 18 meters.
Chelsea, which held a 13-point lead after beating Stoke 2-1 on March 18, has lost two of its last four games.
“The league is open and we have a 50 percent (chance) to win the league,” said Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, who blamed himself for the loss to United. “They showed more desire, more ambition, more motivation. It is very simple but in this case the fault is of the coach.
It means the coach was not able to transfer the right concentration, desire, ambition to win this game.” The result didn’t just blow open the title race, it also left the battle for Champions League qualification intriguingly poised. United moved up to fifth place, four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand, and is six points behind third-placed Liverpool having played two fewer games. “With Liverpool and Manchester City victories, if we don’t win then goodbye Premier League,” Mourinho said. “These three points were phenomenal.” United had conceded five goals and failed to score in its two losses to Chelsea this season – one in the league (4-0) and one in the FA Cup (1-0) – but Mourinho got his own back against his former club this time.
His tactics were spot on, as they often are in big games. Rashford excelled up front, stretching Chelsea’s center backs with the kind of movement and pace that Ibrahimovic would not be able to offer. Winger Jesse Lingard was played out of position in attack and added more mobility alongside Rashford. Herrera and Matteo Darmian did brilliant stifling jobs in man-marking Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez, respectively.
And United center backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly succeeded in riling the combustible Diego Costa, who was booked in the first half and played on the edge throughout.
As good a tactical masterclass as it was from Mourinho, there was a touch of fortune about both goals.
In the build-up to Rashford’s goal, Herrera blocked with his hand a pass from Nemanja Matic but the infringement wasn’t picked up. The United midfield anchorman ran forward and split the defense with his through-ball to Rashford, who got in behind David Luiz and bobbled a finish past Asmir Begovic – starting in place of the injured Thibaut Courtois.
Fans in the Stretford End chanted Herrera’s name as he frustrated Hazard time and again in the first half. They did so again after he made it 2-0 with a shot that clipped off the heel of Kurt Zouma and span beyond an unsighted Begovic, helping United end its 12-match winless run against Chelsea dating back to 2012. United’s unbeaten run in the league extended to 22 games.
Chelsea produced possibly its sloppiest display of the past seven months, with the leaders not helped by left wing-back Marcos Alonso pulling out of the match during the warm-up as he struggled with the effects of a virus. He was replaced by a center back, Zouma, and that unbalanced the team.
Chelsea is still the favorite for the title, with the only obvious stumbling block in its run-in being a trip to Everton on April 30. Its last four games are against Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, Watford and Sunderland. Tottenham doesn’t look like letting up, though, after winning its last seven games and scoring 22 goals in the process.
“The pressure is normal and we are lucky to have the pressure,” Conte said. “Last season, Chelsea had no pressure in 10th place and you play calm, you are happy … we are doing a great job and a miracle if you consider last season and the problems we had.” — Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80 — More AP Premier League: apnews.com/tag/PremierLeague
Originally published as It’s on! United smash PL title race wide open
SOURCE: newsnow sport