A last-gasp effort from Robin van Persie helped Manchester United grab a dramatic 1-1 draw against 10-man Chelsea at Old Trafford.
For Chelsea, it’s a 1-1 draw that will feel like a defeat, the equalizer conceded so late in injury-time, but, as at Manchester City when Chelsea conceded a late equalizer, it’s a draw that takes it a step nearer the Premier League title. The point against United, coupled with Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat at West Ham United on Saturday, leaves Jose Mourinho’s side four points clear at the top of the Premier League and, with all due respect to Southampton, six points clear of its nearest realistic rival, City. History suggests Mourinho always wins the league in his second season and it looks very much as though the pattern will repeat.
Numerous questions have been asked about the wisdom of re-signing Didier Drogba, but his winner, with a classic near-post header from a corner — reminiscent of his equalizer against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final in 2011 — might in itself be enough to justify his return to the club. It’s pointless to pretend the Ivorian is anything like the player he was, but he has a presence and a tactical intelligence that means he can still perform a useful function.
Drogba started his first Premier League game in over two years only because Diego Costa and Loic Remy are injured. He had a relatively quiet first half, although the best Chelsea chance of the first half fell his way after 40 minutes, Oscar cutting the ball back to him just inside the box. Drogba struck the shot firmly, but it was straight at David de Gea. The way the chance came about must have been a concern to Louis van Gaal, a straight ball down the middle prompting a panicky half-header from Marcos Rojo, who always seems error-prone.
Rojo was also fortunate not to give away a first-half penalty when he grappled John Terry to the ground – as Chris Smalling hauled down Branislav Ivanovic — in defending a free-kick. Set-plays were a concern for United through-out; this is a big Chelsea side, its advantage in height making it a persistent threat in the air.
Eight minutes into the second half, those two factors — Drogba and set-plays — came together. First a rapid flurry of passes led to Drogba playing in Eden Hazard. His shot was superbly saved by de Gea, but from the resulting corner, Drogba leapt above Rafael at the near post to direct the ball firmly past Robin van Persie on the line. He may not have the pace of old, but he still has the physical attributes and the instinct for goal.
While it had never been dominant, United had played fairly well until then, producing arguably its best performance of the season. Adnan Januzaj, used largely on the left to allow Angel Di Maria, fit to play despite a doubt over his groin, to attack Luis Filipe, had a sprightly game, his trickery often threatening to expose Branislav Ivanovic. His pass to van Persie after 23 minutes was an extraordinary threading of the needle, but the Dutch striker, as has been the case so often this season, rather snatched at his shot, which was blocked by the out-rushing Courtois.
A more surprising starter was Marouane Fellaini, brought in for Ander Herrera. The Belgian scored the late equalizer against West Bromwich Albion on Monday, while the Spaniard had a disappointing game, but his brief seemed to be to keep tight to Cesc Fabregas, who has had an astonishing record since his move from Barcelona, registering a goal and seven assists. Fellaini has been derided at times since his move to United, but he was impressive in shutting Fabregas down — according to WhoScored.com, his pass completion rate at half-time was down to 65% against a season average of 90% — and may offer van Gaal the physical edge he feels his side has lacked. He could even have opened the scoring, but sliced his shot wide from the edge of the box five minutes in to the second half.
Two minutes later, Chelsea took the lead and the dynamic was changed. James Wilson soon came on for Juan Mata, while Mikel John Obi replaced Oscar to add an extra layer of protection. For much of the final quarter of the game, it seemed Chelsea would hold out comfortably enough, but then, three minuets into injury-time, Ivanovic collected a second yellow card and was sent off. Courtois made a fine save to keep out Fellaini’s header from the free-kick, but the ball fell for van Persie to smash in.
United celebrated, and it can reflect that it closed the gap on City by a point, but it’s still Chelsea that is marching towards the title.