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Man Utd lose heart after sublime Morata header

Driving Chelsea performance leaves Mourinho’s men floundering at Stamford Bridge

Chelsea’s Álvaro Morata scores the winner against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Reuters

And then there was one. With just over an hour gone at Stamford Bridge and Manchester United trailing 1-0 thanks to Álvaro Morata’s sublime second-half header – reward for a more purposeful Chelsea performance – José Mourinho leapt up out of his seat for perhaps the 30th time, quilted grey anorak billowing behind him, and waved his arms in a gesture of trapped rage.

Mourinho’s exasperation was directed at Marouane Fellaini, who was standing too deep inside his own half to get a flick on to a David de Gea clearance. Fellaini rumbled a little mournfully into position. Two minutes later he was booked for tailing an elbow into Morata’s face. Five minutes after that he was robbed, horribly, by Tiémoué Bakayoko, who shot just wide. In the final moments of the game, as United roused for a late grandstand attack, like a rusted trawler being hoisted from the ocean floor, Fellaini trapped an Eric Bailly punt on his velcro chest, brought it down with a roll of the shoulders and punted a bobbling shot that Thibaut Courtois palmed away. It was United’s second and last shot on target. Three minutes later Antonio Conte could be seen capering along the touchline as Anthony Taylor blew his whistle.

Day the music died

And that was pretty much that, on the day the music died for the Premier League title race. Victory for Chelsea leaves Manchester City eight points clear with 11 games played, and playing the kind of football that suggests this is probably quite kind to the rest of the field. At which point there will of course be a temptation to pile in on Mourinho and United for failing to reach such early-season levels. The shots-on-target ratio will be repeated ad nauseam. Mourinho’s poor record against the better teams in the league will be parroted. There are perhaps two things worth saying about this. It seems likely that in the urge to assail Mourinho, to rehash again the debate over whether high-grade defensive organisation also counts as football (it does), Chelsea’s part in this game will be lost a little.

But this was a fine, driving performance from Conte’s team on an afternoon when they played, if not like champions in waiting, then like reigning champions determined not to let their crown slip without digging their fingernails in a little. Chelsea deserved to win this game because on a furious, bruising afternoon they dared to field just enough in the way of creativity and attacking craft to expose United’s own poverty of ideas going forward.

Moment of calm

The return of N’Golo Kanté was key, allowing Bakayoko to play with vigour, if little precision, further up the field. Above all, Kanté’s presence freed up Cesc Fàbregas to provide a moment of calm in the middle of the fury around him, playing at times like the only grown-up on the pitch, with the craft and patience to find a little space, to pick a pass, to try to change the rhythm of the game rather than simply hurling himself into it headfirst.

In Fàbregas and Eden Hazard, Chelsea had two players whose first thought is to find a pocket of space, to disrupt rather than reinforce the rigid defensive lines around them.

During his hour or so on the pitch Henrikh Mkhitaryan stood out in this United team in all the wrong ways: a man still searching for a way to make his talents felt in this team, wasteful on the ball, pushed to the edge of this game. The press box at Stamford Bridge is so close to the touchline you can hear a game as well as see it. This United team really do batter their passes around, the game accompanied by the constant thunking sound of control and pass. Only Mkhitaryan made no sound as he took the ball, boots fitted with a silencer, touch jarringly delicate. He remains a lone, rather meek-looking butterfly in a team of clanking parts, a man playing on the wrong pitch, at the wrong speed, who must long at times for a little company.

Green spaces

Briefly, as Fàbregas began to find a little more space, the game did open up, the constant pitch of collision and midfield grapple dropped a little. Strange, unexpected green spaces began to appear. And Chelsea scored a lovely goal.

César Azpilicueta galloped forward down the right and floated a cross just to the left of the penalty spot. Morata was unmarked. He leapt, floated for a few moments, wrenched his neck and sent a beautiful header into the top corner with the force and accuracy most footballers would be glad to find in their right foot. At which point United reached down to crank the throttle, to alter the trajectory of a trapped, sightly frantic display – and found nothing much, on an afternoon when Chelsea’s edge in attacking quality, and the calm and craft of Fàbregas was enough to take the day.

– (Guardian service)