Louis van Gaal may remain some way short of having a team capable of matching the dominance of Sir Alex Ferguson, but his side replicated one of the hallmarks of the Scotsman’s glorious era at Old Trafford when Robin van Persie struck an injury-time equalizer to deny Chelsea all three points. Despite their most impressive all-round performance of the season so far, United looked set to finish empty handed after Didier Drogba headed in Cesc Fabregas’s corner eight minutes into the second half. But deep into added time, Branislav Ivanovic tripped Angel di Maria near the corner flag and earned his second yellow card to leave Chelsea a man down defending the resulting set-piece. Marouane Fellaini’s header from Di Maria’s delivery was repelled by Thibaut Courtois but Van Persie lashed in the rebound to bring on euphoric scenes around Old Trafford.
The jubilant reactions of his teammates as they submerged him on the Old Trafford pitch showed just how important a result it could be in Van Gaal’s attempts to start bringing the 20 times champions back to the top. The point aids their attempts to get back into the top four, but more importantly was vindication for a committed, organized display that arguably warranted a share of the spoils. While Van Persie suggested afterward they were still looking at closing the 10-point gap to the leaders in Blue, the two sides are surely still some way apart in terms of their ambitions over the course of the season.
The two dropped points, in similar circumstances to their only other failure to win this season -- at Manchester City -- will be of huge frustration to Mourinho, whose decision to so emphatically sit back on his side’s lead will again be called into question. But four points clear at the top of the table and six points ahead of champions Manchester City, they remain on course to lift a trophy that has been so regularly housed at Old Trafford.
Given the imperious nature of Chelsea’s progress so far this season and United’s top-heavy lineup that has continued to see them stumble, there will have been fears about the damage that could be inflicted by the visitors on Sunday. Instead, Fellaini started for the first time this season in a reinforced midfield to give United a much more solid look. And the powerful Belgian played a big part in United pressing and closing down intelligently to deny opportunities for the likes of Oscar and Fabregas to cause damage.
In fact, it was Manchester United that had the more opportunities to go in front in the opening half. Di Maria, United’s best player since his record transfer in the summer, was struggling to have the same influence and miscued with a volley, while Van Persie lacked a killer instinct when twice being played in on the turn down the left of the box. United were missing Wayne Rooney through suspension and Radamel Falcao through injury, while Chelsea were also without Diego Costa and Loic Remy. And that absence of firepower surely contributed to a lack of precision in the final third for both sides in the first 45 minutes. It was a period that ended with Drogba, showing that, aged 36, he remains some way short of the player who departed more than two years ago. Wide open in the box from Oscar’s pull-back, he fired too close to David de Gea, who saved well with his legs.
A mistake from Marcos Rojo had helped gift that chance; an incident that illustrated that, while United were much better at getting numbers back defensively than in any other game this season, the individuals in the team remain some way short of the defensive ability required at the very highest level. That was shown, too, as Chelsea took the lead. Hazard had just displayed his game-changing ability when brilliantly surging into the box before being denied by a sensational save from De Gea. But from the resulting corner, Rafael, bizarrely given the job of marking Drogba throughout, lost his man and Drogba rose in trademark fashion at the near post. His header soared toward goal and Van Persie couldn’t react quickly enough to in order to head away rather than only help it into the net.
United’s intensity initially dipped and Chelsea now looked to have the game in their grasp. Yet rather than going for the jugular, the visitors were content to hold what they had. Just past the hour mark, Mourinho sent on John Mikel Obi in place of Oscar as his former mentor at Barcelona sent young striker James Wilson on for Juan Mata.
As so often under Ferguson, Manchester United got a second wind. With 11 minutes remaining Van Persie again forced a low save from Courtois. The efforts appeared to be in vain. Then, three minutes into injury time, Ivanovic, who had earlier flashed a shot wide with the chance to seal the three points and in the first half was denied a strong claim for a penalty when being bundled down by Chris Smalling, endured further frustration by earning a controversial second caution and a red. Seconds later, Van Persie delivered an answer to his growing number of critics and give Van Gaal a major point to rebut his own.