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Jan 19, 2014

United subside with a worrying lack of guile and fight

Chelsea 3, Manchester United 1. A hat trick for Samuel Eto'o and a red card for Nemanja Vidic were the bitter fruits of Manchester United's latest visit to London.

- Report: Chelsea 3-1 Manchester United

The away side's starting 11 was a blend of containment and enterprise, with Phil Jones returning alongside Michael Carrick in midfield and Adnan Januzaj lining up at number 10 behind Danny Welbeck. The inference to be drawn was that David Moyes was looking to absorb pressure and then release his swift forwards on the counterattack. The one problem with this theory was that Jones, brought in for Darren Fletcher, was far less of a ballplayer and would not be able to pass quickly through the midfield and into Januzaj's feet. A key feature of Manchester United's victory over Swansea was the speed and frequency with which Fletcher and Shinji Kagawa combined, but both players were on the bench here.

In their absence, however, Manchester United started promisingly. It was Chelsea who were content to sit deep, to the extent that Moyes' men had 77 percent of possession after 10 minutes and reached halftime having had more of the ball (55 percent to 45 percent). As ever, though, the most important statistic was the scoreline. Chelsea led at the interval by two goals to nil, both from Eto'o and both originating from the left flank.

The first came after 17 minutes, when the Cameroon striker cut inside onto his left and curled a shot, deflected via the outstretched leg of the flailing Carrick, beyond David De Gea. The second came just before halftime, after a corner, when Eto'o eluded Vidic and turned the ball home from six yards out. It was a fair reflection of the opening period, all in all, one where Manchester United offered occasional threat but where Chelsea slowly and inexorably took control, rather in the manner of an arm-wrestle.

Willian and Eden Hazard surged forward tirelessly, pushing Rafael and Antonio Valencia back on their heels, while Cesar Azpilicueta covered comfortably behind them. When Eto'o completed his hat trick shortly after halftime, after the ball fell loose to him in the six-yard box, the game lost most of its intensity, with Chelsea content to run down the clock against a team that they had, in the end, easily outmatched.

The one Manchester United player who remained conspicuous by his creativity was Januzaj. He continued to make incursions down the left, a nutmeg here, a shimmy there, but to little avail. The only positives of a frustrating afternoon were Javier Hernandez's late goal, continuing his impressive scoring form against Chelsea, and Rafael's miraculous avoidance of a red card in injury time. His two-footed challenge on Gary Cahill escaped the harshest censure, perhaps because he emerged with some of the ball and also because Vidic had recently been dismissed for a contentions challenge of his own.

The most poignant sight of the game was Nemanja Matic, Chelsea's 20.5 million pound signing from Benfica, coming on as a late substitute. Chelsea have signed a key player from a position of strength while Manchester United, struggling from one poor patch of form to the next, have not made the investment that they desperately need. This defeat, then, is further food for thought for the club, whose plate looks like it is overflowing.