Chelsea took a giant step toward securing the Premier League title with Eden Hazard scoring the only goal in 1-0 victory over third-place Manchester United at Old Trafford. Already in a commanding position in the Premier League, Hazard’s fine finish through the legs of David de Gea late in the first half gives Jose Mourinho’s side a surely unassailable 10-point lead over second-placed Arsenal with only six matches remaining.
And they got the victory with a typical Mourinho performance. The free-flowing play of the first half of the season may be long gone, but his side continues to grind out the wins required to get them over line for a first title in five years. This was their fourth straight victory and it came with very much a safety first approach, despite Manchester United missing a host of key players through injury.
In contrast to Chelsea, United have been in thrilling form in recent weeks, but the absence of Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo was always going to take a severe toll. It meant a complete reconfiguring of a midfield that has worked so well of late, with Ander Herrera dropping deeper and Wayne Rooney coming back from the striker role in which he clearly more effective. With Radamel Falcao leading the line and Marouane Fellaini being specifically marshaled by the insertion into Chelsea’s midfield of Kurt Zouma, United were unable to turn their dominance in possession into clear-cut chances against a resilient Chelsea.
A draw will doubtless have been acceptable to Mourinho, but his team were ruthless in punishing the errors of their opponents in order to take all three. The crucial goal came after Falcao was dispossessed by John Terry on halfway, and within just a few seconds the ball was in the back of United’s net. Cesc Fabregas found Oscar, who brilliantly delivered a back-heel into the path of Hazard, and the man who will surely be voted the player of the year as so often delivered a decisive touch for Chelsea.
Chelsea’s approach was clear from their lineup, with Zouma in midfield alongside Nemanja Matic with the goal of snuffing out the man who has been so influential in Manchester United’s huge upturn in form. But at times Chelsea appeared overly pre-occupied with stopping Fellaini. Space was opening up elsewhere in midfield, and, four minutes in, Rooney had the chance to take advantage but shot wide from the edge of the box.
United were playing with confidence, but they were lucky not to be punished when David de Gea handled outside his area. And lacking was the same fluency they displayed in wins over Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City. Herrera showed that he is far more comfortable in a more advanced midfield role than covering in the deep position vacate by Carrick. And that was costly as Chelsea took the lead seven minutes before halftime. As Chelsea quickly counter-attacked, Herrera let Hazard run in behind him before the Belgian beat De Gea.
Herrera was again at fault when Chelsea came close to doubling their advantage soon after the interval. His giveaway allowed Didier Drogba to run through, but after the veteran’s shot deflected up over De Gea, Hazard failed to tuck it in from a tight angle, seeing the post come to United’s rescue. The woodwork would play its part at the other end late on, with Falcao striking the outside of the post with one of the striker’s few noticeable contributions in the 90 minutes.
There was late controversy, too, when United had a vociferous for a penalty turned away. It appeared, though, that Herrera had stuck out his leg with the intention of gaining contact with Gary Cahill's before going to ground. And Chelsea once more expertly closed the game down, and United rarely looked like getting one goal, never mind the two that were realistically needed to keep the Premier League title race alive.