How Manchester United got away with a point is hard to explain, although Cristiano Ronaldo as always was part of the answer. Him and David de Gea, whose despite in goal has been a rare positive in a terrible season for the club. Plus a Chelsea team that simply could not finish.
It was Ronaldo who pulled a shot ball down from Nemanja Matic to drill home moments after Marcos Alonso had opened the scoring for Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel’s team, which was so erratic lately, could have been four goals ahead in the interval, while they would burst further chances in the second half.
United remained the incoherent mess they have become, a team without a noticeable plan under the interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, who has only won twice in 11 matches in all tournaments and for whom a summer overhaul under the upcoming Erik ten Hag can not come soon enough.
Questions abound. The Austrian national team is ready to appoint Rangnick – have they seen United under his care? Where has the confidence and direction gone with a host of players? And specifically, what’s going on with Marcus Rashford?
The action did not tell the whole story because this was an occasion overshadowed by the recent protests from United’s support for the Glazer family. A large group of fans had staged a march in the countdown to kick-off, lighting of flares from which the smoke hung in the air as the match started.
What a strange feeling it was when the players had come out of the tunnel – over which there was a “Glazers Out” banner, while the stadium was strewn with hundreds of empty seats. Some of them would be filled when the protesters showed up after the 17th minute – one for each year of the denounced Glazer ownership.
Chelsea are in crisis for various reasons and the sale of the club in light of the British government’s sanctions against Roman Abramovich casts a long shadow and puts so many things on hold. There was a fight going on here, but it seemed to unfold almost apologetically in light of the story lines off the field.
Tuchel said he felt the tension in the ground, with anti-Glazer chants audible throughout, and it was especially a match for United in the first half. It was Tuchel’s team that had the structure, and who repeatedly found the spaces – especially between the lines and to the right, where Reece James operated with total freedom. The visitors created congestion up on that side all night. United chased shadows.
Tuchel would rage over Chelsea’s waste, with Kai Havertz the biggest culprit before the break. The striker burst into the side netting after an N’Golo Kanté pass, and then came the gilded misses – he shot at De Gea one-on-one and headed in the same direction from sharp range.
James had threatened on a number of occasions in the beginning, while Kanté, without pressure, blasted at De Gea. It was so easy for Chelsea to play their way through United, who offered almost nothing as attacking strength in the first half.
Rangnick was down to 13 available outfielders, with Jesse Lingard most recently absent for personal reasons. He introduced two of them, Phil Jones and Juan Mata, from the bench after 79 minutes and switched to 5-3-2 in a belated attempt to address Chelsea’s supremacy on the right. There would also be a last-minute debut for 17-year-old Alejandro Garnacho.
Chelsea continued to create openings after the break – and wasted them. The unfortunate Havertz took a three-on-two break only to send the final pass directly to the all-rounder Bruno Fernandes, while Timo Werner narrowly managed to get a touch to a Mason Mount cross.
The only surprise was that it took Chelsea so long to score. As James crossed, Havertz flicked on and Alonso’s volley was true. United’s response was impressive, a phrase that almost required an exclamation point. Matic, who had almost picked Ronaldo out with a post after 48 minutes, deserved praise for how he found him on this occasion. Ronaldo’s execution was clinical.
The final stages were tough, which felt appropriate. Matic got away with stepping on James, which triggered a confrontation between the couple; the returning Romelu Lukaku, who substituted for Chelsea, was mocked by the home crowd, and Antonio Rüdiger, who was warned of a foul on Fernandes, avoided further censorship after a high boot on Anthony Elanga. Chelsea thought they had won it, but James’s curler after a Mount kick hit the outside of the post.