Lingard, Lukaku seal Man United comeback win as Morata struggles
MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts on Manchester United's 2-1 win vs. Chelsea in the Premier League.
1. United comeback seals victory and return to second place
Though Jose Mourinho might have hoped a win over Chelsea at Old Trafford in February would mean more, substitute Jesse Lingard's second-half header should give Manchester United fewer concerns about earning a place in the Premier League's top four.
Victory over his former club and managerial rival Antonio Conte will be sweet for Mourinho. There was a handshake between the two before kickoff and the pair even appeared to share an early joke on the touchline.
But after the opening exchanges, Conte was the only one smiling as he watched Chelsea dominate. Alvaro Morata, starting for the first time since Jan. 13, hit the bar, while United couldn't get out of their own half and took 27 minutes to have a shot; Alexis Sanchez probably should have done better than firing tamely at Thibaut Courtois.
The chance looked, briefly, like it might spark the home side into action, but four minutes later Chelsea were ahead with a move that began on the edge of their own box.
Willian, a player Mourinho would have liked at Old Trafford, headed clear Antonio Valencia's cross and, having released Eden Hazard down the right, ran beyond Scott McTominay into the box. After taking a touch to get the ball out of his feet, the Brazilian international beat David De Gea at his near post.
United's goalkeeper punched the ground in frustration, while Conte roared toward his bench, but the away side's lead lasted less than 10 minutes.
Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Anthony Martial were involved in an intricate move on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area before Lukaku held off Marcos Alonso to poke his finish past Thibaut Courtois.
In the second half, Danny Drinkwater and Lukaku traded efforts, in the 75th minute and just as the game looked to be drifting towards a draw, Lukaku popped up again, this time as a provider when, having waited for Lingard to make a near-post run, he played in a cross that was bettered only by Lingard's header.
It was enough to move United back into second place above Liverpool and, crucially, six points ahead of Chelsea with 10 games to play.
2. Impressive Lukaku breaks top-six barren run
Mourinho said in the build-up to the game that he doesn't care whether Lukaku scores or not. It was in response to a question about the striker's record against the Premier League's elite this season, which read six games, no goals. Make that one in seven.
Lukaku's goal against Chelsea was his first against his former club and gave him 22 in all competitions this season. When United were defeated in November at Stamford Bridge, he lost his own personal battle with Alvaro Morata -- the other striker United wanted in the summer.
Chelsea's No. 9 scored the only goal of the game that day, while Lukaku fired his one chance wide, but it was different this time, and the United striker took his goal well. Twice involved in its creation, he finished with a calmness that has not always been evident.
It was a big goal in a big game -- exactly what you expect from a player who could cost upwards of £90 million -- and Lukaku's cross for Lingard's winner was just as good. Having drifted out to the right, he took his time to clip an inviting ball into the near post.
Whether Lukaku or Mourinho care to admit it, this was a one more question answered. The trick is to repeat it, especially with Liverpool visiting Old Trafford in two weeks.
3. Morata nowhere near Costa's standard
Morata's debut season in England was already veering off the rails by the time he headed the goal that beat United at Stamford Bridge in November; he had been on a six-game scoring drought and has netted just four times since then in 19 appearances.
There is no shortage of mitigation: The 25-year-old has been hampered by hamstring and back issues -- in addition to the pressure of a scoring responsibility he has never before faced in his career -- while also dealing with the shock and grief of losing a close friend, who died in a car accident last month.
But football is unforgiving, and no matter how understandable the nature of Morata's recent struggles, Chelsea's urgency for him to be the striker for whom they paid a club-record £58 million to prise from Real Madrid remains as keen.
Had he found the net rather than the crossbar early on at Old Trafford, you suspect he and Chelsea would have enjoyed a more positive afternoon. Morata is a confidence player, a man whom his former Juventus teammate Gianluigi Buffon once claimed could be the world's best striker "if only he could get over his mental hang-ups."
But he did not, and what followed was another limp performance that justified Conte's decision to leave him and Olivier Giroud -- true No. 9s both -- on the bench against Barcelona in midweek. Morata mislaid passes, miscontrolled touches and ruined some of Chelsea's best transition chances with poor decisions.
On the one occasion he did find the net with a neat finish, an offside flag narrowly denied him his moment and Chelsea a late equaliser; a subsequent yellow card merely added to the frustration of the Spanish international.
Worst of all, though, he allowed himself to be bullied. Diego Costa would have licked his lips at the sight of Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof at the heart of the United defence, but all too often Morata writhed on the floor as play left him behind. He is not yet playing by Premier League rules.
Chelsea were pushed back and ultimately defeated in part because of their striker's passivity. If they are to rescue their top-four hopes in the season's final stretch and have any hope of winning silverware, Morata needs to be much better.