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United spirit fails to break Chelsea resistance

The Borg may believe resistance is futile, but Chelsea swore by it and reaped the rewards at Old Trafford on a day Manchester United finally managed to rediscover their spirit of old.

In one of three late kick-offs on Monday, Louis Van Gaal was faced with a must-win game. The defeat against Stoke City two days earlier had all but hammered in the final few nails in the coffin that symbolised his career as United manager. While United didn’t manage a win, what they did show was a sort of bravado and adventure that might just save the Dutchman.

The Red Devils had a stellar first half. Wayne Rooney showed the kind of positional awareness that makes him a crucial cog in the wheel even when he is not scoring goals. His deft first touch in the opening minutes put Juan Mata in, and the Spaniard unleashed a monster of a shot that sailed past an outstretched Thibaut Courtois in the Chelsea goal, only for the ball to canon back off the crossbar towards safety. Soon after, another Rooney lay-off found Morgan Schneiderlin just outside the penalty area, but the Frenchman’s effort whizzed just wide.

Chelsea, too, were unlucky. John Terry met a corner with a ferocious header and was sure he had scored. But David de Gea was exceptional in the United goal, sticking out an instinctive right hand and somehow tipping the ball over the bar.

United’s best chance came from a piece of individual brilliance. Anthony Martial picked up the ball from the left of the area, danced past a throng of Chelsea defenders, pulled the trigger towards the near post. Courtois was again beaten all ends up, but the frame of the goal came to the Blues’ rescue yet again, this time the ball bouncing off the inside of the post, along the goal line beyond an onrushing Mata.

Meanwhile, Chelsea would have desperately hoped that when the ball broke from a United corner, someone other than Nemanja Matic would run on to it. As it was, it was the masked midfielder who found himself one-on-one with de Gea. But, with a goal gaping, Matic blasted his effort high and wide – an effort that brought back memories of Fernando Torres skying the ball with no one in the United goal.

Both goalkeepers, though were crucial to the 0-0 scoreline. David de Gea first made a great save to keep out Pedro, and then denied Cesar Azpilicueta on the rebound while still recovering his balance. On the other end of the pitch, Courtois showed remarkable will to keep Ander Herrera from scoring from two yards.

There were a couple of more incidents of note at the death. Wayne Rooney scuppered a golden opportunity to seal the game, slashing his volley above the crossbar. Willian seemed to handle the ball inside his own box, the referee saw nothing in it, but replays suggested the Chelsea midfielder panicked after miscontrolling the ball and then used his left hand to bring it under control. And right at the end, Wayne Rooney was lucky to escape with only a yellow card after a high boot caught Oscar on his calf. However, there was hardly any malice in the incident and the referee seemed to agree.

At the final whistle, there was a welcome change in the atmosphere the team and manager are used to seeing. There was a smattering of the usual boos and whistles, but the Old Trafford faithful applauded the players off the pitch. United played with a sense of purpose, their football was attractive – more so in the first half than the second, but attractive nonetheless – and much better than the plaid, pedestrian stuff that was being paraded as Van Gaal’s “philosophy” for so long.

Will the result keep the manager at Old Trafford for a little longer? Maybe. But if 2016 brings with it the same boring football the fans have grown to hate, the chopping block is only an arm’s length away.

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