For Chelsea, it was a painful night in more ways than one. As if seeing Harry Maguire escape censure for studding Michy Batshuayi in a very private area was not bad enough, there was also the frustration of the VAR interventions that left Frank Lampard feeling sore after being beaten again by Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who celebrated a win built on dogged defending, Bruno Fernandes’s first assist in a Manchester United shirt and the sight of Anthony Martial rising to the occasion in the absence of the injured Marcus Rashford.
It was a strange contest – Solskjær admitted his side were poor before Martial gave them the lead – and those tight refereeing calls are worth keeping in mind when it comes to analysing United’s fourth league win over another Big Six side this season.
Lampard, furious that Maguire was still on the pitch to score United’s second goal, could not believe his misfortune. Nothing went right for Chelsea. N’Golo Kanté limped off early on, Kurt Zouma had an equaliser ruled out when a VAR review questionably detected a foul on Brandon Williams by César Azpilicueta and the technology intervened again when Olivier Giroud, standing with one foot in an offside position, headed past David de Gea in the dying stages.
Away from the VAR debate, however, there was the more pressing matter of Solskjær outwitting Lampard for the third time this season. Chelsea, who have won four of their past 14 league games, could not complain too loudly.
Their seventh home defeat under Lampard leaves them a point above Tottenham before hosting them on Saturday and three points above an average United side. Sheffield United are two points back in sixth place and, on this evidence, it is just as well that Manchester City’s troubles with Uefa means that finishing fifth could be enough to qualify for next year’s Champions League.
This was yet another blunt display from Chelsea, who lacked dynamism in attack without the injured Tammy Abraham. Batshuayi toiled in place of Abraham, who remains troubled by the ankle injury he suffered against Arsenal last month, while the absence of Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi lessened Chelsea’s threat on the flanks, where fitful displays from Willian and Pedro showed why a deal is in place for Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech to move to Stamford Bridge in the summer.
Injuries are stretching a tight squad and Chelsea, who host Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League next week, could have done without Kanté limping off with a sore adductor in the 12th minute. Andreas Christensen also had to go off at half-time, shortly after the centre-back had allowed Martial to glance home the opening goal.
United, tough to break down in their 3-4-2-1 system, had offered little before edging ahead in the 45th minute, but Chelsea’s lack of decisiveness in both penalty areas always gives opponents a chance and they fell behind when Aaron Wan-Bissaka, turning Willian inside out on the right, delivered for Martial to flick a clever header beyond Willy Caballero.
The French striker’s 13th goal of the season felt harsh on Chelsea. They had played the brighter football and the temperature rose when Batshuayi and Maguire set off in pursuit of a loose ball in the 20th minute. A shove from Batshuayi sent Maguire sprawling and the United centre-back was fortunate that a VAR review did not deem him guilty of violent conduct after kicking out at the Chelsea forward.
Aggrieved not to be playing against 10 men, Chelsea briefly raised the tempo. Pedro dashed down the left and crossed for Batshuayi, who stabbed wide from 12 yards. Moments later Willian went over when Fernandes hung out a leg. The Brazilian was booked for diving and the half ended with Batshuayi fluffing another opening, dragging wide from a tight angle.
It became an ordeal for Batshuayi, who lacks the smarts to ruffle composed centre-backs. While he is mobile, the Belgian is not as effective at linking the play as Abraham and his inability to protect the ball made life easier for United’s back three, where Eric Bailly was looking understandably rusty on his first start since last April.
It was not Chelsea’s night. When Pedro’s close-range effort was deflected wide Zouma scored from the resulting corner, lashing a meaty volley past De Gea. Unfortunately for Chelsea, Brandon Williams was lying face down in the grass and United were appealing for a foul. Off it went for a review, which showed Azpilicueta had given Williams a little shove at the near post. The goal was scrubbed out, even though replays also revealed that Fred had pushed Azpilicueta first.
Lampard fumed and the identity of United’s second goalscorer was another slap in the face. Fernandes lifted in a corner and Maguire rose highest, leaping above Antonio Rüdiger before pounding his header beyond Caballero.
Batshuayi then made way for Giroud, who was eager to impress after being denied a move away from Chelsea last month, and the France striker thought he had pulled one back after converting Mason Mount’s cross. VAR had other ideas.