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Chelsea’s Diego Costa strikes at the last to deny Manchester United

This should have been the afternoon Manchester United breathed new life into their pursuit of the top four. Stamford Bridge may not be as impregnable as it once was, but victory would have edged the visitors within four points of the bottleneck beneath Leicester City, offering Louis van Gaal some respite amid all that familiar discord and doubt. He would not admit it, but to inflict defeat on a team who had started the campaign under José Mourinho, a friend who apparently now covets his job, might have provided added satisfaction.

Instead, as the Dutchman berated the fourth official in the mouth of the tunnel at the end, then echoed his complaints through his post-match quotes at the referee’s eagerness to blow his whistle and choke a United counterattack at the end of each half, it was hard to escape an underlying sense of deflation.

As bright as United had been at times, at the start of the second period in particular, when a goal of real pedigree had eventually forced them ahead, they were also damagingly wasteful. Aside from profligacy, the concession to Diego Costa in added time was born of the substitute Memphis Depay’s weak surrender of possession at the other end of the pitch. Just as at Newcastle United last month, points had been frittered away. “To have conceded so late makes it feel like a defeat,” said Jesse Lingard.

This game should have been theirs, for all that Chelsea summoned a response in the final quarter in pursuit of an equaliser. David de Gea had done well to deny Branislav Ivanovic on the volley, then turn aside Cesc Fàbregas’s crunched shot towards the near post. When Costa rose to nod over as the fourth official’s board was raised, it felt as if the hosts’ opportunities had been and gone.

Instead, Depay carelessly handed the home side another opportunity to spring upfield, the forward perhaps undecided whether to make for the corner and waste time or set up his fellow substitute Morgan Schneiderlin with a potential sight of goal. Chelsea regained the ball and, within seconds, Fàbregas was clipping a pass through the clutter of bodies on the edge of the United penalty area with panic having set in.


The visitors had been unnerved by John Terry’s presence as a makeshift forward, Daley Blind unsure just who he should be picking up only to slip as he belatedly broke forward, thereby clearing a pathway through which Fàbregas’s delivery duly squeezed. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson had played Costa onside and slid in desperately to try and intercept, only for his tackle to take the ball away from an on-rushing De Gea and neatly into the striker’s path.

Costa collected and converted a seventh goal in nine appearances and the champions had extended their unbeaten run to 11 matches. They are also now on 30 points, 10 away from the traditional marker to avoid relegation. Their own frustration was born of De Gea’s fine save to thwart Costa in what time still remained and, more worryingly, a potentially serious knee injury sustained by Kurt Zouma that will be scanned on Monday.

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Yet it was United who felt damaged. This had been one of their better displays, a performance to maintain the promise of those wins over Derby County and Stoke City even as all the uncertainty swirls over the manager’s long-term future at the club.

Thibaut Courtois had denied Anthony Martial, thrillingly, and Wayne Rooney, then Lingard at full stretch just as the visitors’ ascendancy was growing before the hour-mark.

Unperturbed, Michael Carrick, Martial and the excellent Juan Mata pinged their passes once again to liberate Borthwick-Jackson from left-back. His centre was touched on by Rooney with the ball falling to Lingard, 12 yards out and with the 23-year-old’s back to goal. There was a touch, a spin and a fine rising shot on the turn which careered into the top corner before César Azpilicueta could summon a block.

Chelsea have found themselves in arrears too often on home territory, and a fifth defeat here loomed large. Their own attacking play had been generated in fits and starts, a flurry midway through the opening period when Costa and Oscar had found their range, and a wild penalty appeal in first-half stoppage time as John Terry’s shot struck Blind on the left elbow as he sprung out to intercept.

Zouma’s absence had disrupted their approach, the Frenchman having leapt to hack a loose ball upfield only for his right leg to buckle grotesquely on landing. He was taken off on a stretcher, distraught and clearly in agony. “It’s very bad when you land with a hyper-extension of your leg, very bad,” said Guus Hiddink before drumming his finger on the wooden desk. “Touch wood [it will not be the end of Zouma’s season] but, tomorrow, we’ll know more.”

They had still been reorganising when Lingard forced the visitors ahead, with Terry then pushed forward to bolster the attack with the game creeping away from Chelsea’s reach. Costa’s finish earned them a point, though those already faint hopes of making Europe through their league position are fading with each drawn match.


“We are unbeaten [since Mourinho’s departure in December] but, if you want to get into fourth place, you have to make victories,” added Hiddink. “We have had too many draws to get to fourth place. So it’s difficult.”

That sounded like an understatement given United are six points off fourth place and still feel like outsiders in the pursuit of Champions League qualification.

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Man of the match David de Gea (Manchester United)


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