Jose Mourinho hailed a “fantastic” performance from Marcus Rashford as Manchester United blew the Premier League title race wide open with a 2-0 victory over leaders Chelsea yesterday.
Goals at the start of either half from Rashford and Ander Herrera condemned Mourinho’s former side to their second defeat in four games.
The Blues’ lead over second-placed Tottenham is now down to four points with six games left, while United boosted their own hopes of reaching the top four by extending their unbeaten league run to 22 games and moving to within four points of fourth-placed Manchester City.
Mourinho’s tactics were spot on, as they often are in big games. Rashford excelled up front, stretching Chelsea’s centre-backs with the kind of movement and pace that Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who started on the bench – would not be able to offer.
Winger Jesse Lingard was played out of position in attack and added more mobility alongside Rashford. Herrera and Matteo Darmian did brilliant stifling jobs in man-marking Eden Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez, respectively. And United centre-backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly succeeded in riling the combustible Diego Costa, who was booked in the first half and played on the edge throughout.
The manager reserved special praise for Rashford. “He played fantastically well, I think he did also a very good game at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup,” said Mourinho of the impressive 19-year-old.
“Today he scored and it was at the beginning of the match which gave the team confidence and stability. The kid played fantastically well, but everybody fought and did what they had to do.”
United flew out of the blocks and Rashford turned home a fine seventh-minute opener when he latched on to an exquisite Herrera pass and showed wonderful composure to direct the ball past goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
Chelsea’s regular keeper Thibaut Courtois missed the game because of injury, with manager Antonio Conte refusing to comment on speculation that his ankle problem was sustained playing basketball in a commercial shoot.
Four minutes into the second half, the visitors’ goal was breached again. Ashley Young was unable to get away a shot but the ball fell for Herrera to produce a thumping strike, taking a deflection on its way past Begovic.
Lingard curled one over soon after and Old Trafford erupted as the net rippled in the 61st minute, only for it to quickly dawn on supporters that Rashford had hit wide.
Conte later blamed himself for the loss. “The league is open and we have a 50 per cent [chance] to win the league,” he said. “They showed more desire, more ambition, more motivation. It is very simple but in this case the fault is of the coach. It means the coach was not able to transfer the right concentration, desire, ambition to win this game.”
Chelsea return to Premier League duty on Tuesday 25 April when they host Southampton. Spurs visit Crystal Palace the following evening.