Saturday, 18 April 2015

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard sinks Manchester United to bring title closer

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard (right) wheels away to celebrate after giving his side the lead against Manchester United in the Premier League. Photograph: Nigel French/PA
There really can be no doubt now that when the ribbons are attached to the Premier League trophy the light blue of Manchester City will be replaced by a darker shade. José Mourinho’s team are ticking off the challenges and their lead is now 10 points. With only half a dozen games to go, the residents of Fulham can expect a letter soon advising them of plans for an open-top bus parade.

For long spells it was a predictably conservative performance from the league leaders, but there is an expertise here in the art of winning football matches through structure, stubbornness and know-how and, when the opposition makes an error, being absolutely clinical. It also helps that they have a left-sided attacker, Eden Hazard, who could feasibly finish the season with a clean sweep of the player-of-the-year trophies to go with his championship medal. Hazard’s contribution has been immense and it was his goal, towards the end of the first half, that gave Chelsea the opportunity to remind everyone exactly how accomplished they are at not surrendering those positions. The ovation when Hazard was substituted in stoppage time told its own story and it was not long afterwards before Mourinho was out of his dugout, demanding even more noise, in that familiar victory pose.

Mourinho’s first little trick came before kick-off when the jets of water started to cascade and the playing surface was drenched to the point the ball could actually be seen splashing in certain areas of the pitch. Was this a ploy to slow down the tempo? If so, it did not prevent United starting brightly and moving the ball quickly. Not long before Hazard stuck his shot between David De Gea’s legs, the possession statistics had flashed up that Chelsea had seen only 30% of the ball. United’s list of absentees was extensive but Louis van Gaal had kept to the 4-1-3-1-1 system that had been so successful of late and Hazard’s goal arrived just at the point Stamford Bridge was starting to feel a little anxious.

Chelsea had looked short of ideas until that point and surprisingly lacklustre bearing in mind the opposition had a new-look defence featuring the promising but raw Paddy McNair. Instead, United knocked the ball around in those early exchanges with the confidence that had been accrued from ambushing Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in recent weeks.

Luke Shaw’s surging runs from left-back were a prominent feature. Antonio Valencia had the same ambitions to press forward from the opposite side and Wayne Rooney really ought to have done better with one of Shaw’s cutbacks, managing only to hit the stanchion behind the goal. The chance fell to Rooney’s left foot and, for all his gifts, England’s captain has rarely excelled when the ball is on that side.

Van Gaal could be seen furiously remonstrating with the fourth official, Craig Pawson, after the goal because he thought there had been a foul by John Terry in the buildup. It was rare to see the Dutchman in that kind of finger-pointing pose but his anger would be more accurately directed at his players. Chris Smalling’s pass out of defence was the first problem, in keeping with a recurring theme when the centre-half is on the ball and has to think what to do with it. Radamel Falcao had Terry closing in from behind and as soon as the Chelsea captain came out with the ball the away team were vulnerable.

In those positions, there really is no better side in English football than Chelsea at exploiting their opponents’ mistakes. Suddenly, they were alive. They broke with speed and directness and Oscar’s backheel was measured perfectly to leave Hazard scampering into the penalty area. Chelsea’s outstanding player of the season drew De Gea out of his goal and scored with a low shot.

This was Falcao’s first start in almost two months and another occasion when it felt like a champion boxer had maybe had one too many fights. Juan Mata, returning to his old ground, was not as influential as recent weeks and the same could also be said of Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young.

Mourinho had made special plans for Fellaini by drafting in Kurt Zouma as an auxiliary midfielder and, for the most part, the tactic worked well.

Shaw’s driving runs along the left continued to trouble Chelsea. McNair also did well and was even emboldened to gallop forward and test Thibaut Courtois with a 25-yard drive. Shortly afterwards, a deflected shot from Rooney came close and Falcao’s first chance of the evening was skewed wide.

Yet United’s best performers during their recent run had dropped down a level. Chelsea were protecting their lead, determined not to lose the structure of their team, and restricting themselves mostly to counter-attacks. With a touch greater ambition, perhaps they might have found more flaws in the opposition defence. Didier Drogba got away at one point and when his shot flicked off Chris Smalling it looped over De Gea to drop at the far post. Hazard, with the goal fully exposed, tried an improvisational hook-shot but could only turn an awkward bouncing ball against the post from a difficult angle. The old Falcao might have buried the chance that came to him later on, after he had spun away from Zouma, but Ander Herrera deserved his yellow card after flicking out his foot to manufacture a penalty from Gary Cahill’s challenge in the final moments and Chelsea celebrated like champions in waiting.
The Guardian

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