Edinson Cavani had not kicked a ball since 7 March. The Uruguay striker had missed the end of last season at Paris Saint-Germain because of a contract dispute, he tested positive for coronavirus over the summer and he was forced to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival at Manchester United having travelled over from France as a free agent.
Cavani has been dreaming of getting back onto the field for longer than he may care to remember, through an awful lot of strangeness and upheaval and, when it finally happened, his first touch as a United player almost brought a fairytale reward.
On as a 58th minute substitute, Cavani moved towards a Bruno Fernandes cross after United had worked a short corner routine and flicked towards the near post. The ball flew just the wrong side of the post. Almost but not quite. It was the story for Cavani and United.
Despite not playing with any real attacking cohesion, United did have other flickers but on each occasion, Édouard Mendy stood tall. Chelsea’s new goalkeeper had one near-horror moment in the first half when he tried to play a square pass from in front of his goalline to Thiago Silva and nearly dragged it into the far corner of the net. Instead, it tricked out for a corner.
But when United tested his reflexes, he had the answers. He saved smartly from Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata before the interval and he kept his best until the end. The board had gone up to show the added time when Rashford curled a fierce shot for the far corner from the edge of the area. Mendy dived to his left and tipped behind.
Chelsea could be happier with the point, mainly because of the questions that have been asked of them in defensive terms so far this season. Twice they have shipped three goals in the Premier League – in the helter-skelter draws with West Brom and Southampton – and the inquests have been grisly.
In the search for the perfect blend, Frank Lampard started with a back three for the first time this season. It was the system with which he had beaten United in the FA Cup semi-final last season and it featured an authoritative performance from Thiago Silva in the middle of it. The new signing from PSG could reflect on two excellent blocks as United belatedly turned the screw towards the end, one of which denied Paul Pogba; the other Cavani, his long-time teammate in Paris. Pogba had also entered as a substitute.
The controversy came in the 40th minute when Harry Maguire put César Azpilicueta in a headlock as he defended a Chelsea free-kick inside his own area. It was a high-risk move in the VAR era and it was remarkable to see him get away with it. Azpilicueta could not believe that the referee, Martin Atkinson, had missed it but Lampard was more unhappy the video assistant did not suggest a review on the pitchside monitor.
“If that had happened, the referee would have to give it,” Lampard said. “It was a clear penalty. It was very confusing. I don’t understand it at all. It was a pretty simple decision.”
Lampard’s frustration was understandable but at the same time, his team did struggle to make attacking in-roads. He had wanted them to do “both sides of the game.” They only did the defending. Balance remains elusive.
United had lost both of their previous home games this season by an aggregate scoreline of 9-3 and they could not afford another reverse. Chelsea, too, seemed as if they wanted not to lose more than they wanted to win and there was plenty of defence blunting attack, of systems suppressing individuals.
Lampard wanted to be solid in his 3-4-3 and, more specifically, he did not want United to be able to harness the pace of Rashford and Dan James on the counterattack. Could United proactively unpick such a setup – something that has been a problem under Ole Gunnar Solskjær? Once again, they found it difficult.
Chelsea hogged the ball in the first-half but they struggled to create anything of clear-cut note. Christian Pulisic shot at David de Gea before he robbed Fred on 34 minutes, advanced and saw an effort deflect wide.
Fernandes aimed a petulant clip at Jorginho, which did not attract the attention of VAR but it was Maguire’s escape that framed the occasion from Chelsea’s point of view.
United had wanted to pounce on errors and drive forward quickly and they did so when Fernandes won the ball off Jorginho on 35 minutes and Mata immediately released Rashford. Mendy got his angles right to block and his save from Mata was equally sharp, after Rashford had laid off following Luke Shaw’s burst.
Pulisic almost turned home from a Reece James cross but Solskjær was entitled to point out that if either team deserved to win, it was his own. “We had the bigger chances,” he said. “I’m pleased with the players.”