Manchester United and Chelsea clashed this weekend in a match pivotal to any challenge on Chelsea's hold on the league title race. Chelsea were 8 points ahead of third place United and with a victory, could surely seal the deal and first place this season. United desperately needed the victory more, first, to improve their away record this season, second, to increase their chances in the title race, and third and most important, to clinch a top four finish and Champions League football next season.
United entered the week with some injuries to key first team players including Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Phil Jones, and Jones' likely replacement Marcos Rojo. The injuries forced Louis Van Gaal's hand in his team selections, making three changes to his winning side against Manchester City. David De Gea made his 33rd start at goalkeeper. Luke Shaw, replacing Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, who appears to have won LVG's trust, Paddy McNair, replacing Phil Jones, and Antonio Valencia, still favored over Rafael, comprised the United back four. In midfield, Van Gaal started Ashley Young, Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini, Wayne Rooney, and Juan Mata. Radamel Falcao reprised Rooney's striking role on the weekend.
United dominated possession throughout the match, holding 71 percent percent over Chelsea. Early in the match, they nearly converted this possession into a goal. Ashley Young played Luke Shaw through into the penalty area. Utilizing his advantage in pace over Branislav Ivanovic, Shaw strode into the box and played a lay off pass towards Rooney. Rooney's shot left Courtois flat-footed, but failed to find the net although it fooled many at the game as well as viewers at home that it did in fact beat the Belgian goalkeeper.
United attacked mostly down the left channel, attempting to advantage Young and Shaw's pace down the left flank. Their efforts created many chances for shots, but no actual concrete chances. The match remained deadlocked at zero, until disaster struck on a seemingly innocuous challenge at midfield. In the 38th minute, Falcao failed to hold up play for United, losing out on a challenge by John Terry. Chelsea counterattacked brilliantly off the change in possession; Fabregas found Oscar, who played a dangerous backheel pass into the path of Eden Hazard with yards of space ahead of him. Hazard dribbled into the box and stroked his shot through De Gea's legs to put Chelsea ahead 1-0.
In the second half, United continued their dominance in possession and Luke Shaw revealed even more of his pace and potential to enter attack. Several times, he beat his defender and played crosses that endangered the Chelsea penalty box. Shaw's performance in the match was extremely impressive overall.
Shaw's play led to perhaps Falcao's best chance on net, a chance that doesn't even appear on the stat sheet as a chance on goal. With Falcao working the gap between the left back and centerback, Shaw slid an incisive pass into the penalty box. Falcao ran onto it, beating Gary Cahill and finding space for left-footed shot that beat Courtois, but didn't beat the post. The ball struck the outside of the post, granting the keeper and Chelsea faithful a tremendous let off and goal kick.
In the 83rd, Rooney wasted a great corner kick service from Ángel Di María, heading his shot way over bar. Things were grim for United even until the dying moments of the match, when the referee's decision-making was called into action on a challenge in the box. In the final minute of five allotted minutes for extra time, Chris Smalling played a direct ball in the air to Falcao, which fell dangerously on the edge of the penalty area. Ander Herrera ran onto the ball, poked a touch past the tackle of Gary Cahill and collided with his right foot, going head over heels. All eyes turned to the referee with Chelsea fans dreading and United fans praying for a penalty kick to be awarded. The referee's decision was instantaneous, granting Chelsea the free kick and punishing Herrera with a yellow card for diving. Soon after the resulting free kick, the match was whistled to a halt with Chelsea victorious at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea's victory over United may not have confirmed that the title race is over this year, but it certainly improved their chances tremendously. Chelsea's match against Arsenal this upcoming weekend will certainly confirm whether Arsenal, United, or City have a fighting chance still. United's efforts in the match should be praised and were acknowledged by manager Louis Van Gaal. He noted the frustrating nature of holding the majority of possession, taking the majority of the chances, and still losing the match. Van Gaal will probably be most pleased by the performances of Ashley Young and Luke Shaw, while he will more than likely demand more from captain Wayne Rooney, who took four shots and only one on goal, and Falcao, who took three shots. United continue their season with a big rebound match against Everton, away at Goodison Park. The match will be aired on NBC Sports Network at 8:30 am ET.
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