Manchester United and Chelsea clashed on Monday in a matchup often lauded for its implications at the top of the table. This year, however, Chelsea, the reigning league champions, are floundering, only three points clear of the relegation zone. Manchester United continue to struggle for form, but remain only three wins from first place in this season of tremendous parity in the Barclays Premier League. United and Chelsea played to a stalemate, although United forced the issue, holding 67 percent possession, and accrued the most threatening chances, striking the woodwork twice.
Louis Van Gaal faced an ultimatum; another defeat was not acceptable and would ultimately lead to his parting ways with the club. For this pivotal match, he made some changes to the team that started against Stoke. David De Gea started in goal again. The back four ahead of comprised of Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, and Matteo Darmian, returning from a hamstring injury. In the midfield, Morgan Schneiderlin made his return from injury, pairing up with Bastian Schweinsteiger in the defensive midfield positions. Martial, Mata, and Ander Herrera started in the advanced midfield positions just behind Wayne Rooney, who returned to a striking role.
United looked incredibly dangerous from the outset of the game. Wayne Rooney played some wonderful link up play by playing Juan Mata in on goal with a well-weighted one-time pass. Mata took a controlling touch from the edge of the penalty area and produced a brilliant shot that beat Courtois, but left the crossbar rattling. Just two minutes into the game, it was a great chance for United, but not the best chance for the team in the first 16 minutes. Anthony Martial produced United's best chance on goal and, simultaneously, an accurate depiction of the season this far, sharp, threatening, but in the end not quite brilliant enough. Martial skillfully beat his marker, Branislav Ivanovic, cutting onto his right foot just before unleashing a driven shot for the lower left that again beat Courtois but hit off the inside of the left post, rebounding harmlessly across the goal face and over the touch line for a goal kick. In between United's great chances, a Chelsea corner nearly sent Old Trafford into silence. David De Gea proved up to the task, palming John Terry's powerful header over the bar to safety for another corner.
Later in the first half, Rooney had a go from distance. After free kick, the ball was rolled to Rooney and he unleashed a driven shot from 30 yards out that required strong hands from Courtois, but from that distance, never really threatened to beat the keeper.
In the second half, United started on the back foot, as Chelsea sprung to life. Chelsea nearly seized a chance in United's lapse of possession. Pedro almost proved the beneficiary of Chelsea's possession. After receiving a pass from Hazard, he managed to dribble past the United defense and strike a left-footed shot that De Gea parried out just as far as Cesar Azpilicueta. He attempted a shot that required another response from De Gea to keep the game level at 0-0.
United's best chance of the second half again came from wonderful play from Martial. He dribbled past Ivanovic again, going towards the byline with the purpose of crossing the ball back across the box. His cross, played low just past the feet of Kurt Zouma, found Ander Herrera's run. Herrera's attempt on goal bounced off the chest of Courtois, rolling across the goal face, before Courtois tucked it behind for a corner. United's afternoon nearly turned to disaster, as a quick Chelsea counter attack of a corner led to a breakaway for Nemanja Matic. Matic was one on one with David De Gea before he woefully mishit his attempt on goal way over bar. United's final chance in the game fell to the usually capable feet of their captain, Wayne Rooney. Rooney's attempt on goal, however, was completely revealing of his current form. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, a second half substitute for Matteo Darmian, whipped in a cross to the back post to a wide-open Rooney. Rooney's volley attempt was pitiful, sending the ball way over the crossbar. The match finished soon after at 0-0.
United missed a golden opportunity to right the sinking ship that is their season. Van Gaal may have missed the firing sickle of the executive board after earning the point, but he remains a defeat away from termination. United are in desperate need of a winning streak in their next few matches in order to propel them in the standings to the Champions League spots and to secure Van Gaal's job. They play Swansea City at Old Trafford on Saturday, January 2nd. The game will be aired at 10:00 a.m. on NBCSN.