A hat-trick from Samuel Eto’o propelled Chelsea to a convincing 3-1 victory over Manchester United on Sunday that keeps them right in the thick of the title race and leaves the champions now surely forced to accept any wistful dreams about retaining their trophy have been wholly extinguished.
Chelsea remain two points off the Premier League summit, yet having rarely caught the imagination with their performances. Even here, it was not display worthy of mass acclaim, but Jose Mourinho’s outfit once more showed their growing ruthless efficiency that may just seem them stay the course. The home side were clinical in the way they went about their business, while their opponents were anything but.
After a positive start from the visitors, Eto’o fired Chelsea in front with a deflected strike 17 minutes in and from then on, other than a Danny Welbeck chance which may have led to a penalty, it always felt like they possessed an element of control. United’s defense was found desperately wanting for Eto’o to score either side of half-time to get his first hat-trick in by far his best performance since his move from Anzhi Makhachkala and vindicate his manager’s decision to select him ahead of Fernando Torres.
With the job done, Chelsea took their foot of the gas, although Mourinho will still doubtless be disappointed that substitute Javier Hernandez was able to finish from close range. But unlike in this same fixture two years ago when Hernandez scored a late equalizer as United came back from 3-0 down, there was never going to be such a stirring fight back this time around. And the visitors’ misery was complete when captain Nemanja Vidic was shown a straight red card for a wild lunge on Eden Hazard, while Rafael was lucky not to immediately follow him down the tunnel after a similarly reckless challenge.
Those late incidents, along with the manner of the goals his side conceded, are perhaps the most worrying aspect of this performance for Moyes. Sure, his tactics are again worthy of criticism. The decision to bring in Ashley Young for Shinji Kagawa, when the Japanese playmaker’s switch to the No. 10 role had been the difference maker last time out was undeniably negative. It left a United midfield, featuring the deep-lying Michael Carrick and Phil Jones, providing no support to United’s one bright spot Adnan Januzaj, along with Danny Welbeck up front. But there were signs that newspaper stories about Moyes having lost the faith of several members of his squad were more than just malicious pot-stirring.
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In contrast, it is clear that Mourinho has his players increasingly buying into his philosophy. It is not one that will wow viewers and there have and will be casualties along the way, not least Juan Mata and Kevin de Bruyne, but it would be foolhardy to bet against it leading to major trophies come May. The play of Eden Hazard and Willian down the flanks, who have combined the industry and creativity that Moyes yearns from his wide men, epitomized Mourinho’s approach.
Chelsea had to recover from a difficult start when Manchester United came out of the blocks with impressive intensity and were pressing Chelsea high up the pitch, preventing the home side from establishing any rhythm or even getting out of their own half.
Yet, the visitors had very little to show for their early pressure. A shot from the otherwise anonymous Young from the angle, which was turned wide by Petr Cech, being the closest they came to breaching a Chelsea defense that had conceded just once in their last six matches coming in.
And, while still not playing well, Chelsea began getting into the game more and looked threatening once they broke through United’s early press. Indeed, getting into the final third, Chelsea found United’s defending acquiescing in the extreme. Throughout, Eto’o was to be the main beneficiary.
The opening goal arrived when the experienced Cameroonian picked up a loose ball over to the left before dropping his shoulder and cutting inside past Jones with ease. With United slow to close him down on the edge of the box, he curled a left-footed shot that got a pivotal deflection off the outstretched leg of Carrick to take it over the dive of David de Gea and into the top corner.
Despite being a goal behind, there was no alteration in Moyes’s tactics. While they were having good possession, when getting into attacking areas there were a distinct lack of options for the man on the ball. More often than not, that man was Januzaj. It was no surprise that the 18-year-old, who again looked a cut above his teammates, was instrumental in creating United’s best chance of the period.
Having again found space drifting over to the left, he put in a low cross, which, for once, caught out Chelsea’s defense to allow the ball to run for Welbeck in the center of the box. His shot was straight at Cech, however the United forward was clearly distracted by the challenge of Cesar Azpilicueta who clattered into him from behind, without appearing to get a touch on the ball. It was the one moment where Moyes could justifiably look back on with a sense of injustice.
Having seen a chance to pull level go begging, United soon found the game decisively taken away from them, again owing as much to their own failings as the work of their opponents. Minutes after Oscar had put an acrobatic volley over, Eto’o had his second, right on the stroke of half time. Having done the first part of defending a corner, United switched off to allow Gary Cahill to receive the ball on the right of the box and drill in a low cross from which Eto’o was left completely unattended to sweep into the net.
There were no changes from Moyes at half time and whatever harsh words he might have had in the dressing room had little to no effect. Indeed, his players appeared to have given up the ghost when allowing Chelsea to effectively seal victory just four minutes after the restart.
Not only was Cahill allowed a completely free header from a corner six yards out but after De Gea had made a quite miraculous save, Eto’o, despite being surrounded by United players, reacted quicker than any of them to turn the ball in from a couple of yards out.
Chelsea began sitting increasingly deep, too deep as it turned out when allowing Jones space in the box to put a low ball across the area that enabled Hernandez to display his poacher’s instincts to stab home. Yet, fittingly, after a self-destructive performance, both Vidic and Rafael lunged in with reckless tackles on Hazard and Cahill, respectively, that should have seen the hapless visitors ending the match with nine, rather than 10, men.