It was almost as Cristiano Ronaldo might have imagined. The serial Champions League winner, the Real Madrid great, the best player on the pitch, salvaging a point with a glorious, dramatic, looping header. Except, as Ronaldo languished in exile, banished from the squad for his insubordination on Wednesday, it was Casemiro celebrating his first Manchester United goal.
He deserved it. He was arguably the player of the match against both Tottenham and Chelsea, but if he had a rival for that title at Stamford Bridge, it was Kepa Arrizabalaga, who almost clawed Casemiro’s header to safety, whose resistance had ensured Chelsea preserved parity in a first half United dominated and who was seconds from a sixth successive clean sheet.
Graham Potter was denied, too, almost becoming the first manager since Andy Aitken since 1908-09 to beat United in a top-flight season with two different clubs. Potter changed the game with his changes but Erik ten Hag emerged with credit, too. United were terrific at the start. Ronaldo might argue they could have benefited from the services of a finisher with, say, 817 career goals as they lacked a clinical touch, but there were signs this side is being shaped with a collective ethos and a dash of class.
As Chelsea and United got their habitual draw – this was a fifth in a row – two unbeaten runs were extended. United have not lost in 10 league games against Chelsea; Potter has not lost at all in his time at Stamford Bridge. Yet United diced with defeat as the goals came late. The late opener was a tale of two substitutes who had only been on for a handful of minutes, Scott McTominay wrestling Armando Broja to the ground as the Albanian sought to meet Ben Chilwell’s corner.
Subtlety is not McTominay’s forte and it was an act of stupidity. Jorginho’s nerveless penalty put Chelsea ahead. They had come the closer to scoring earlier, with Trevoh Chalobah clipping the bar with a header from Mason Mount’s corner; a second set-piece brought a greater punishment for United, aided by Broja’s verve.
Potter had already made a difference with his interventionist approach. United’s dominance was such that he made both a tactical change and a personnel swap after 35 minutes, removing Marc Cucurella. The Spaniard’s last three starts have been curtailed after 45, 61 and 35 minutes respectively, which presumably was not what Chelsea anticipated when they paid Brighton £63m for him.
Chelsea nonetheless improved after the switch to a 4-4-2 diamond, with the substitute Mateo Kovacic illustrating why he should have started and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang immediately rolling a shot just past the post. Ten Hag responded in kind, bolstering his midfield with Fred as Jadon Sancho, United’s most disappointing player made way. It made for a more even second half.
Buoyed by their best performance under Ten Hag and perhaps their finest for years, United produced a second statement of intent. They ventured south with confidence and adventurousness. After 19 first-half shots against Tottenham, United had a further eight versus Chelsea.
They had the creativity of Bruno Fernandes and the class of Casemiro who, after arriving with a reputation for destructiveness, has proved a constructive presence. He proved capable of instigating attacks with passes and tackles alike.
But they encountered an in-form goalkeeper as Arrizabalaga’s remarkable renaissance continues. The Spaniard tipped Antony’s curling shot past the post and pushed Fernandes’s second-half shot past the post.
He made a point-blank block to deny Marcus Rashford, following a defence-splitting pass by Fernandes, and then parried the striker’s driven effort.
For Rashford, it continued a trend from Wednesday. He has encountered resistance from in-form goalkeepers in his quest to bring up a century of United goals, with Arrizabalaga following Hugo Lloris.
Meanwhile, Antony angled a shot just wide after Fernandes opened up Chelsea for a second time with an incisive pass, a wayward finish with his right reviving concerns that United’s £85m did not acquire them a two-footed player. But with Luke Shaw and Christian Eriksen also coming close, United posed a threat.
But the damage to them extended beyond McTominay’s actions. United lost Raphael Varane, who limped off after stretching in a failed bid to stop Aubameyang; the Frenchman’s exit in tears may have been a sign of the pain or reflected his worries he will miss the World Cup. Varane is the third of the Real old boys at Old Trafford. For them, this game represented the good, the bad and the ugly.
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