LONDON – Chelsea, somehow, remains fourth in the Premier League table, but that surely is not a position that can hold for long. Frank Lampard’s side was desperately unfortunate on Monday to lose 2-0 to Manchester United, but that cannot disguise the pattern of a miserable run of form that has seen it win only four of its last 14 league games. Tottenham is just a point behind now and United only three (and Sheffield United two). Regardless of whether Manchester City’s appeal against a UEFA ban ends up meaning the top four or top five qualifies for the Champions League, the pressure is mounting on Chelsea.
Its failings were familiar. Once again, Chelsea created chances, only to squander them. When Olivier Giroud was belatedly introduced midway through the second half, the ironic cheer suggested many at Stamford Bridge have begun to wonder just why he keeps on being overlooked for Tammy Abraham, whose form had slipped even before his injury, and the erratic Michy Batshuayi.
But that was the only sign of dissent from a home crowd that remains firmly behind its former hero, for all of Chelsea’s shortcomings this season. Defending against counterattacks and set plays have been Chelsea’s weaknesses all season. It was by the counter that United picked Chelsea apart on the opening weekend of the season; here it was a set play that sealed the victory. Not that technical failings were the reason Chelsea lost this: this was a game settled by the vicissitudes of VAR, which increasingly has come to seem less an all-seeing eye and coldly making correct decisions than a mischievous demon intent on proving that too much precision can at times come to seem capricious.
In this mess of a season, in which there seems to be very little between pretty much every side below Manchester City, there is an increasing sense of futility about such games. United had perhaps regarded this is a game it needed to win if it were to finish in the top four (or five), and it did somehow secure it Solkjaer’s third victory over Lampard this season–although there can be no sense this win was the result of some managerial masterclass.
With both sides beset by injuries and both suffering a crisis of form, this was a strange game, much of it seemingly played at someway off top pace. Chelsea had probably had the better of the first half, and was ruing the haphazard finishing of Batshuayi when United unexpectedly took the lead on the stroke of halftime. Aaron Wan-Bissaka turned inside Willian and crossed for Anthony Martial to glance a header in at the far post.
There had been little to suggest United was capable of a move of such quality. Chelsea hadn’t just created the better chances but could also legitimately point to two critical refereeing decisions that went against it. The first saw Willian booked for a dive when he seemed to be caught by Bruno Fernandes–that the contact occurred outside the box meant VAR could not intervene.
Then, Harry Maguire was fortunate to get away with apparently thrusting his studs into the groin of Batshuayi as the two tangled just in front of the Chelsea bench. Perhaps it was just the way he fell, but the way the leg lifted and straightened, albeit without great force, looked deeply suspicious. Certainly Son Heung-min, sent off for a similar flick of the leg on Antonio Rudiger when Tottenham lost to Chelsea at the end of December, may wonder at the very different interpretations of incidents that ostensibly seemed quite similar.
It was a moment of clemency that would have profound ramifications.
The sense that everything was going against Chelsea only intensified when VAR ruled out a Kurt Zouma volley 11 minutes onto the second half for a shove by Cesar Azpilicueta on Brandon Williams. While the Chelsea captain did shove the young wingback, there’s a reasonable argument he did so only because he himself had been barged from behind by Fred.
Ten minutes later United, shortly after Bruno Fernandes had hit the post with a dipping free kick, doubled its lead. It was Maguire–of course–thumping a header into the bottom corner.
And even then VAR had one last trick to play, ruling out a Giroud header for a marginal offside.
Mason Mount then struck the post with a free kick. It really wasn’t Chelsea’s night.
In the end, two deeply flawed teams produced an entertainingly chaotic night, not that the hilarity will be much solace to Chelsea. Nobody in this race for Champions League qualification is capable of consistency. On this evidence, anything, frankly, could still happen.