These are the facts: Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 today. Chelsea will win the league title, possibly within the month. But Manchester United can be proud of where they are in terms of restoring the glory days.
Saturday's trip to Stamford Bridge was the most difficult opposition the country has to offer and yet United put on a performance that was a two-fingered salute at all those that claimed this United team are light-years behind the England's Champions-elect. Forget the fact that Jose brought out his largest bus to camp just ahead of Thibaut Curtois, United had the chances to score two or three today and better finishing would have easily won United the game on another day.
To put it into perspective, it is difficult to recall the last time Chelsea were played off the park on their own turf in the league. There was no Samuel Eto'o hattrick with 50 minutes played and United looking all over the place. The shame that was last season's reverse fixture had long been dispelled form the minds. United were supposed to be taken to be taken to school here and the difference in class was supposed to be almost tangible. Far from it, Chelsea were rightfully in awe of the improvement United have made and so set about not to lose the game. Up to the 38th minute when Eden Hazard scored with Chelsea's first shot in target, Stamford Bridge observed in disbelief as last season's 7th placed side reduced Chelsea to defending corners and hoofing it long to Didier Drogba. Perhaps they deserve credit for having the best defensive structure in the league but it is a truth that was public knowledge even before kick-off. What was uncertain was whether United can dominate a game at Stamford Bridge in a manner similar to the way they dominated one at Anfield.
We shall never know whether United could have gotten a better result had they not been struck by an injury crisis in the most vital areas of their team. As it was, a few players had to temper their usual roles with the discipline of covering the team's deficiencies in the absence of Daley Blind and especially Michael Carrick. That United still won the midfield battle is testament to the genius of Ander Herrera who is increasingly playing himself to cult-hero status at the club. The Spaniard was denied what some referees would interpret as a stone-wall penalty right at the death but Mike Dean chose not to add fuel to the fire that is the 'campaign against Chelsea' according to Jose Mourinho.
As predicted on this blog, Jose Mourinho had Kurt Zouma all over Fellaini and it served him well. Ashley Young meanwhile found himself up against a couple of opponents everytime he tried to get space to cross. He so often opted to lay it off to the brilliant Luke Shaw on the gallop. Wayne Rooney should have buried one such cross in the first half but his left foot is distinctly not as good as his right. Radamel Falcao was unlucky to smash the frame of the goal late in the second half. On what proved to be another tough outing for the Colombian, he was unfortunate not be awarded a foul when Terry barged into him with an elbow to win the ball that eventually led to the goal from Chelsea won the game.
United struggled to make decent of the final ball as so often the crossing from out wide was poor whilst when it was good, the finishing was badly wanting. The law of averages counts for so much in sport that you felt that this was the game in which the penny would not drop for United.
Still, 9 points out of 12 in the so called tough run of fixtures that was supposedly destined to rule United out of the Champions League is a dream return. Improve the backline of this team and the sharpness up top and United would easily walk the league next season with a brand of football that will make a mockery of Chelsea's title triumph. The pattern of the game suggests the system (or philosophy for that matter) is well embedded in the players so much so that we were not all at seas because we missed a couple of better players in certain positions. Shout outs to Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw for seamlessly slotting into the team after lengthy spells out of the side.
It's comforting to be the team that other top sides adapt to in big games. That is the signature of a top team at the peak of their style of play. Manchester City dropped their traditional 4-4-2 against us and opted for the cautious 4-5-1 whilst Chelsea played virtually 7 defenders infront of Curtois to keep out United. In the latter years of Sir Alex's reign, we found ourselves in a position of having to adjust our play to adapt to the top sides in the league. This game smacked of the 2010 Champions League final at the Bernabeau in which Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan needed 27% possession to beat van Gaal's Bayern Munich 2-0. If we are where Bayern Munich were at the time, then it's hard not to marvel at the job Louis is doing at the club. Louis van Gaal intends to leave United in a position where they do not have to answer to anybody in terms of how they play. Subconscious and Capable. Not far away on this evidence.
Manchester United might have come away from London without a point, but the rest of the premier league has taken note of an inevitability: United are back in business. You have your work cut out to try and beat them. Chelsea certainly know that they were in a game today but most crucially will be unnerved by how quickly United have become as good as they are.