Chelsea’s lead at the top of the Premier League now stands at only four points and the title race is wide open again after they were well beaten by a resurgent Manchester United at Old Trafford.
United manager Jose Mourinho has suffered this season against the club where he was a three-time champion, losing 4-0 in the league at Chelsea and also going out of the FA Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge.
The Portuguese was not to be denied this time as Marcus Rashford, paired with Jesse Lingard up front while a jaded Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rested, finished coolly after seven minutes and Ander Herrera – detailed to do a brilliant man-marking job on Eden Hazard – saw his shot deflected in off Kurt Zouma four minutes after the break.
Zouma was a late replacement for Marcos Alonso, who pulled out in the warm-up, but Chelsea can offer no excuses here as they were second best throughout. Tottenham now trail them by four points with six games to go and have the superior goal difference.
Chelsea looked to be strolling to the title just a few weeks ago – but a sudden stumble, including the home defeat by struggling Crystal Palace, and an irresistible surge from Spurs have brought renewed edge to the run-in.
Conte will feel his side did not enjoy the best of luck here, with keeper Thibaut Courtois ruled out with a training injury, Alonso withdrawn after the warm-up and referee Bobby Madley missing what appeared to be a clear handball from Herrera as he intercepted Nemanja Matic’s pass before sending Rashford clear for the opener.
The Blues are still in a strong position but they are now feeling the hot breath of Spurs on their neck after Pochettino’s team made it seven successive league wins for the first time since 1967 with a 4-0 home win over Bournemouth on Saturday.
So Spurs have momentum – but Chelsea still have a four-point lead, which counts for a lot with only six games left.
The Blues’ run-in also looks a little kinder, with home games against Southampton, Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland – but a real test to come at Everton.
The pressure, however, is now applied and there may be twists left in this race. Spurs will feel renewed hope.
Mourinho’s starting line-up raised eyebrows, with Ibrahimovic on the bench and Anthony Martial nowhere to be seen – but the end result, and the manner of United’s victory, demonstrated just how brilliantly he had set up his team.
With Ibrahimovic out, the pace and movement of Rashford and Lingard offered the sort of threat that troubled Chelsea instantly. Rashford had missed one good chance before coolly directing a finish past Begovic early on.
The real masterstroke, however, was his decision to deploy Herrera as Hazard’s shadow throughout. The Belgian, who Conte felt was a deliberate target for physical punishment in the recent FA Cup quarter-final, was totally snuffed out by Herrera, who covered his every move and forced him to the margins on a miserable afternoon for Chelsea.
And, to make Mourinho’s day complete, it was Herrera who escaped Hazard’s attentions to find space in the area and send that deflected shot high into the net at the Stretford End for the home side’s crucial second goal.
This was a bitterly disappointing display by Conte’s side but it was only their fifth league defeat of the season.
Too many of their big players failed to make an impact, with Hazard nullified and striker Diego Costa falling back into bad old ways, seemingly more intent on conducting a running battle with Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly than pose a threat.
Chelsea will also feel they got the rough end of the refereeing decisions, but in the end United were dominant
Conte will be disappointed but his side are still title favourites, with that slender lead but also a favourable remaining programme.
Source: BBC Sports