Jesse Lingard’s penchant for the big occasion brilliantly tipped the balance for Manchester United against title-holders Chelsea as the Reds reclaimed second place in the Premier League table.
The Reds’ no.14 headed in the 75th-minute winner at Old Trafford, connecting with a cross by Romelu Lukaku who had earlier cancelled out the Blues’ opener by Willian to square the match at 1-1 for half-time. It was a masterstroke by Jose Mourinho to bring on Lingard, the scorer of FA Cup and EFL Cup final goals for United, and the susbtitute had the scent for glory again only 12 minutes after coming on.
United were in danger of allowing Antonio Conte’s side to draw level in the table and tighten up the battle for the coveted top four berths. But instead the stubborn Reds refused to fold after going a goal down and ultimately restored the longstanding state of play in the league.
Both sides had returned to Champions League football in midweek following the Euro winter break with United playing in Spain against Sevilla 24 hours after Chelsea had drawn with the might of Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s team looked initially like they’d had the longer preparation time and less travelling as they dominated possession and it was a struggle for the Reds to get into the match.
There was an early scare after just four minutes when Alvaro Morata hit David de Gea’s crossbar with a volley from Alonso’s cross. De Gea, who was the sensational hero on Wednesday night in United’s 0-0 draw in the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, was then needed to tip over Eden Hazard’s effort as the Belgian followed up Alvaro’s miss.
It continued to be a slog but just as the Reds finally managed to claw a way back into the match, the Premier League champions ruthlessly hit United the break. A 31st-minute attack by the hosts was broken up and Willian stormed from the edge of his own area to take the ball forward.
The Brazilian swiftly fed Hazard before racing on for the return and sliding his right-footed shot past De Gea.
United were finding it hard to have an impact on the game in the penalty area but Mourinho’s men stuck it out and got the reward. There were only crumbs to be had but Romelu Lukaku snaffled his opportunity up.
The Belgian forward was dogged in his bid to keep a 39th-minute chance alive. His hold-up play eventually brought Nemanja Matic into the action and the Serbian slipped the ball to Alexis. The Chilean’s pass to Anthony Martial was forwarded to Lukaku and the striker finished off the move with a calm effort against his old club.
It was the 100th Old Trafford goal under the management of Jose Mourinho and Lukaku’s fourth strike in February. It couldn’t have been more timely and raised the spirits after a difficult first 45 minutes.
Despite the lift of that equaliser the pattern in the second half remained much the same with Chelsea looking the more dangerous side. The Reds needed to contain the Hazard and Willian threat but the latter went on a punishing 49th-minute run that ended with Morata’s shot being blocked.
There was a heart in the mouth moment when De Gea spilled a Danny Drinkwater long-range drive but United cleared the loose ball. After 63 minutes Mourinho made his first substitution. It hadn’t been a productive afternoon for Martial and he was taken off for Lingard.
The Reds started to look brighter and goalscorer Lukaku almost spectacularly put United in front after 67 minutes. He acrobatically volleyed a left-footed effort at the Stretford End that needed a glove from Thibaut Courtois to tip over to foil the Belgian.
Mourinho’s substitution paid off but Lukaku was again influential in the moment that put the Reds in front after 75 minutes. He floated in a perfect clipped cross over the head of defender Andreas Christensen to meet the run of Lingard who’d ghosted in to steer his header home.
It was a superb comeback from the Reds that will be a huge boost going forward in the “amazing” month ahead predicted by Mourinho.