Chelsea were beaten by goals in both halves as a frustrating night at Stamford Bridge ended in defeat for Frank Lampard’s side.
Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire did the damage in 20 minutes either side of half-time, both headers buried beyond Willy Caballero and into the Blues net. Yet the hosts also had the ball in the back of the net twice, chalked out on both occasions by VAR.
Kurt Zouma thought he had levelled not long after his half-time introduction but the video officials spotted a foul by Cesar Azpilicueta in the build-up, before the offside law was enforced to the millimetre as Olivier Giroud’s header was ruled out for a stray toe behind the line of the last defender, thwarting any hopes of a late comeback.
The result leaves us fourth in the Premier League table, one point clear of our nearest challengers Tottenham, who we host next weekend.
With Tammy Abraham still feeling the effects of the injury he sustained in crashing into the advertising hoardings against Arsenal last month, Michy Batshuayi was the man selected to deputise for the England international up front. Batshuayi had scored our only previous goal this season against United in October’s League Cup defeat.
Callum Hudson-Odoi also missed out through injury, meaning Willian and Mateo Kovacic returned to the side in three changes from our draw at Leicester last time out. Caballero was retained in goal.
Bright start goes unrewarded
It was the hosts who enjoyed the brightest opening on a chilly night in west London, with Reece James firing across the face of goal and narrowly wide after just six minutes before Willian bent a left-footed curler narrowly over moments later.
Lampard’s side were dealt an early blow, however, when N’Golo Kante pulled up inside a quarter of an hour and the Frenchman had to be replaced by Mason Mount, whose arrival injected some energy into what had been a cagey start.
Maguire was forced into a last-ditch header behind to stop Toni Rudiger’s cross travelling further into the six-yard box, while Batshuayi could only stab wide at the end of a lovely move involving Pedro and Mount.
Decisions to debate
There were two key decisions for referee Anthony Taylor – and the VAR – to rule on in the first half, with Stockley Park backing the on-field officials on both occasions.
The first involved Maguire and Batshuayi on the touchline right in front of the Chelsea dugout, with the falling United defender extending his leg in a kicking motion towards the Belgian’s groin. It was strikingly similar to the red card that Son Heung-min received against us earlier in the season but there were no reprisals this time.
Shortly afterwards, Willian went tumbling over Bruno Fernandes’s outstretched leg in the box after a short corner routine from the left. Taylor decided that the Brazilian had made the most of the contact and booked him for simulation.
Blues stung with first shot on target
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side managed to find a greater share of possession and territory as the half advanced, aided by the width provided by their 3-4-2-1 shape and the unpredictable pace of Martial and Daniel James.
Bruno Fernandes, the recent acquisition from Sporting Lisbon, cleared the crossbar with their first meaningful effort on goal after 37 minutes but Martial was less forgiving when presented with the chance to strike the breakthrough before the interval.
A warning from the Frenchman came and went when he played a neat one-two with Fernandes and drove forward into the box but thankfully dragged his finish wide. Yet there was no such reprieve in the last minute of the half when Martial darted in front of Andreas Christensen to head Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s teasing delivery into the bottom corner.
Batshuayi had a chance to hit straight back as he led a counter-attack from halfway late in added time but the Belgian’s shot from a tight angle on his weaker right side trickled harmlessly wide.
Zouma was on for Christensen at the break after the Dane ended the first period receiving treatment and it was our French defender who changed the anxious mood inside Stamford Bridge by turning in a corner from close range.
However, as the teams set up for the restart, the customary VAR check had spotted an infringement by Cesar Azpilicueta, with our captain ruled to have been pushing in the box. Despite arguments that the Spaniard had himself been nudged just before the alleged foul, Chelsea protestations fell on deaf ears and the score remained 0-1.
United soon had a second as Fernandes stepped up his influence, first thumping the base of the post with a free-kick before providing the inswinging corner from which Maguire powered a thumping header into the bottom corner.
Giroud’s introduction was the last throw of the dice from Lampard and it almost instigated a Chelsea comeback. Eric Bailly had moments earlier raced across to close the door on Kovacic but the visiting defenders could do nothing when Mount advanced down the right and produced a perfect cross for Giroud to convert with a stooping header.
Once again, the players were back in position for the restart and once again VAR intervened as the red and blue lines ruled Giroud’s toe offside. The home fans voiced their frustration at the video technology once more, with some bemoaning its influence and others demonstrating their displeasure simply by heading for home.
In the last action of the game, Mount hit the post with a late free-kick in another sign that it just wasn't going to be our night.
A big week for the Blues. Tottenham are next up at the Bridge on Saturday lunchtime before our Champions League campaign resumes with a home tie against Bayern Munich in the last-16 on Tuesday 25 February.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Caballero; James, Rudiger, Christensen (Zouma h/t), Azpilicueta (c); Jorginho, Kante (Mount 12), Kovacic; Willian, Batshuayi (Giroud 68), Pedro
Unused subs Kepa, Tomori, Alonso, Barkley
Booked Willian 35; Rudiger 47; Zouma 60; Pedro 64
Man United (3-4-2-1) De Gea; Bailly, Maguire, Shaw; Wan-Bissaka, Matic, Fred, Williams; James (Pereira 80), Fernandes (Dalot 90+2); Martial (Ighalo 90)
Unused subs Romero, Jones, Mata, Greenwood
Scorers Martial 45; Maguire 66
Booked Fred 59; Williams 76; Wan-Bissaka 79
Referee Anthony Taylor