Manchester United closed to within three points of Chelsea in fourth place with a win at Stamford Bridge
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s trip to Chelsea on Monday began with a familiar voice ringing in his ears as Paul Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola delivered another stinging rebuke in his direction about the French midfielder’s future.
The Pogba saga has been a permanent backdrop to Solskjaer’s Old Trafford reign – so it will have made a vital victory at Stamford Bridge even sweeter as it pushed football back to the top of his and Manchester United’s agenda.
The Norwegian also lives with permanent speculation about his own future but once again he has pulled out the result that will lift the clouds, for now at least, as the 2-0 win gave United only their second win in six league games.
It was much needed after a goalless draw against Wolves and a 2-0 loss to Burnley at Old Trafford – and the fact it propels them to within three points of Chelsea confirms the fluid, unpredictable nature of the Premier League behind runaway leaders Liverpool.
Chelsea are fourth with 41 points while Burnley, in 11th place, are only seven points adrift.
Manchester United’s current reduced status, and the reason why questions are constantly asked about Solskjaer’s suitability to revive this fallen Premier League giant, is emphasised by the fact they only have half of Liverpool’s 76-point tally.
It is a galling statistic but somehow, helped by the failings of others and their own ability to grind out the occasional vital result, they find themselves right in the chase for the top four.
And with Manchester City fighting a two-year ban from European football after being accused of “serious breaches” of Uefa’s club licensing and Financial Fair Play regulations, fifth place might yet be precious and lucrative.
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It is also a sign of the new reality at United that fourth place might even be regarded as success for Solskjaer and his players these days.
United may not have claimed three points with a flourish but they were more ruthless in front of goal than wasteful Chelsea, and this was a victory they closed out in comfort, made easier by the defensive excellence of captain Harry Maguire, who scored their second, Eric Bailly and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
There is another debate around whether Maguire should have been on the pitch to power home Bruno Fernandes’s corner after heftily placing his boot into a very delicate area of Michy Batshuayi’s anatomy in a first-half touchline tussle.
United definitely had the better of the video assistant referee’s interventions as Chelsea saw Kurt Zouma’s equaliser ruled out for Cesar Azpilicueta’s push on Brandon Williams when further examination of the evidence revealed he was actually pushed into United’s defender by Fred.
It was good fortune but Solskjaer will take it where he can get it as he tries to convince the doubters.
This is an enigmatic Manchester United side that have won at Manchester City and beaten Tottenham this season, now adding this important win at Chelsea to complete their first league double over them since 1987-88.
And yet there has also been so much mediocrity.
Solskjaer needed this result and deservedly celebrated at the final whistle.
“We are three points behind Chelsea now and that was a massive win,” he said. “We could not have realistically clawed back nine points. This gives us a chance [of qualifying for the Champions League].”
Lampard said the result was ‘typical’ of Chelsea’s home games this season when up against a team playing five at the back
As for Chelsea, boss Frank Lampard is facing the toughest test of a managerial reign still in its infancy.
The Blues’ spark, for now, has gone and for all their pretty patterns they are very much a blunt instrument in front of goal.
It is easy to see why Lampard looked discontented at the failure to land a forward in the January transfer window, with Batshuayi demonstrating exactly why he has spent so much of his Stamford Bridge career on the margins of the action.
The Belgian is not a natural taker of goals when presented with time. He is instinctive and he was not flavour of the month here with two crucial misses, and received a flea in his ear from Chelsea’s supporters before he was replaced by Olivier Giroud.
Giroud would have been on his way out of the club had a reinforcement been found but it is still hard to see why he is not preferred to Batshuayi, whose confidence looked shot by the time he was taken off.
The France striker remains a shrewd operator and a better bet to find the net than Batshuayi, and he was unlucky to be denied a goal by his toe being offside after scoring with a fine header.
It is hardly crisis time for Lampard with Chelsea still in the top four, but there is no doubt they are short on inspiration, with other sub-plots emerging for him to deal with.
He has clearly lost faith in erratic £71m goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to the extent he now prefers a 38-year-old who has been a permanent deputy for many years in Willy Caballero. It surely means Chelsea will be seeking a replacement for Arrizabalaga in the summer.
The Blues now face an acid test when former manager Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge with Spurs on Saturday.
The pupil outmanoeuvred the master at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium earlier this season, but the pressure is reversed on this occasion and Mourinho will relish the encounter.
Chelsea need to end the slump soon as defeat by Spurs will send them out of the top four places.
“We are fourth and the season starts here,” said Lampard.