uite how Manchester United escaped with a point is difficult to explain although, as ever, Cristiano Ronaldo was a part of the answer. Him and David de Gea, whose defiance has been an isolated positive during a horrendous season for the club. Plus a Chelsea team who simply could not finish. It drove Thomas Tuchel to distraction inside his technical area.
United remained the disjointed mess that they have become. But the action did not tell the story of a night that was dominated by the latest round of rancour from the United support towards the club’s ownership.
The scene was framed by the latest anti-Glazers protest march by United fans. They lit flares, the smoke from which hung heavy in the air at kick-off time. What a strange feeling it was beforehand, the players emerging from the tunnel above which there was a “Glazers Out” banner; the stadium dotted with hundreds of empty seats. Some of them would be filled when the protesters filed in after the 17th minute – one for each year of the reviled Glazer ownership.
For a supposed glamour fixture, there had been precious little build-up while the fact it had been brought forward from 14 May, when Chelsea will contest the FA Cup final, to the Thursday of a big week of European fixtures added to the low-key vibe.
Chelsea are in crisis for different reasons, the sale of the club in light of the UK government sanctions against Roman Abramovich casting a long shadow, placing so many things on hold. There was a match going on here but it seemed to unfold almost apologetically in the face of the off-field storylines.
To a backdrop of anti-Glazer chants and one from the visiting enclosure for Abramovich, Chelsea dominated the first-half, creating a host of big chances. It was Thomas Tuchel’s team that had the structure and it was they who found the spaces – plenty of them – and especially in between the lines and on the right, where Reece James operated with a rare freedom. United chased shadows. Even worse, the effort did not seem to be there.
Tuchel had to be pleased at how his team pulled their opponents apart but he raged at the profligacy before the interval, with Kai Havertz the biggest culprit. The striker blasted into the side-netting after an N’Golo Kanté pass and then came the gilt-edged misses – he shot straight at David de Gea when one-on-one and headed in the same direction from point-blank range.
James had threatened early on while Kanté blasted straight at De Gea with no pressure on him. It was so easy for Chelsea to play through United. The home team offered next to nothing before half-time.
Rangnick was down to 13 available outfield players, with Jesse Lingard the latest absentee for personal reasons. The interim manager, meanwhile, had been linked in the hours before kick-off with the Austria job, which he could combine with his looming consultancy role at Old Trafford. Austria, presumably, have not been watching United under his care.
Chelsea continued to create openings after the interval – and waste them. Havertz led a three-on-two break only to send the final pass straight at the covering Bruno Fernandes – it was staggering to see how open United remained – while Timo Werner narrowly failed to get a touch to a Mason Mount cross.
The only surprise was that it took Chelsea until the hour mark to score. James picked up possession in space on the right – United seemingly happy to leave him to his own devices – and, when he crossed, Havertz flicked on and Marcos Alonso volleyed back into the far corner, having adjusted his feet quickly.
United found a response, a sentence that almost demanded an exclamation mark. Nemanja Matic, who had almost picked out Ronaldo with a cross on 48 minutes, scooped a lovely ball over the top for his teammate. The first touch was pure and so was the finish.
Matic seemed to get away with one after standing on James as the pair fell over the byline and off the pitch and Chelsea pushed for the winner,which almost came when Kanté robbed Scott McTominay and Mount flicked inside for James but his curling shot hit the outside of the post.