Van Persie leaves it late to poach point for Manchester United
Robin van Persie’s relief and passion were palpable as he celebrated his stoppage time leveller, capitalising on the chaos caused by a last-gasp Angel Di Maria free-kick, to rifle through the mass of bodies and finally beat an imperious Thibaut Courtois.
Old Trafford erupted and, although they stay marooned in 8th place in the Premier League, Manchester United (outsiders at 25/1 to win the Premier League) needed a result before facing bitter rivals Manchester City next time out. Van Persie himself was visibly boosted, after toiling away for 90 minutes in what looked set to be another lacklustre performance from the Dutchman.
The decision had seemed dubious by Louis van Gaal to leave Van Persie on the pitch, and instead trade Juan Mata for James Wilson, but his persistence with his compatriot paid off in sensational style.
It was a day to celebrate the sharpness of veteran strikers, with Samuel Eto’o also bagging a smart brace for Everton against Burnley. For Chelsea, meanwhile, Didier Drogba turned back time to be the Blues’ goal hero once more.
Diego Costa’s absence dominated the build-up to this eagerly anticipated clash, but 36-year-old Drogba emphatically blasted his way back into the limelight and illustrated that he can still be Jose Mourinho’s leading man.
United made a fatal and perplexing mistake in allowing Rafael to mark renowned set piece danger Drogba for Cesc Fabregas’ corner, and the Ivorian attacker duly left David de Gea no chance with a powerful and precise header to fire his team ahead.
In an enthralling and feisty game littered with bookings, the strikers had their say, but super stoppers Courtois and De Gea also made a significant contribution to save their sides.
The battle between Courtois and Van Persie was a particularly intriguing subplot, but the Belgian keeper appeared to have the misfiring forward’s measure, making three crucial stops, before finally coming undone in extra time after Branislav Ivanovic saw red from a second booking.
De Gea was also once again in fine form, cleverly foiling crafty Eden Hazard’s excellent work, although his save resulted in the subsequent corner for Drogba’s goal. Tricky wing wizard Hazard may have been thwarted in his attempts to find the net, but he did win the battle of the widemen, with Di Maria noticeably off-colour by his standards.
With 19 attempts to Chelsea’s nine, United looked their most threatening for some time, and could still have taken several positives from the game had they not been able to stage what was a vintage Sir Alex Ferguson era-esque comeback.
Adnan Januzaj and Luke Shaw stepped up to the occasion to put in their best shifts this season so far, with both putting chances on a platter for Van Persie, and Marouane Fellaini also built on his successful outing against West Bromwich Albion by troubling Fabregas throughout.
The Spaniard had a bland game by his standards, with midfield partner Nemanja Matic proving more influential, but still managed to record his eighth Premier League assist of the campaign, a testament to his talent even when off-pace.
Ultimately, Chelsea will leave Old Trafford disappointed after conceding yet another extra time goal in a crucial game, which they also did against Manchester City, especially after dominating the second half.
Mourinho’s ridiculous record against top opposition continues to be practically unblemished but, if there was one flaw in the visitors’ game, it was that they did not go for the jugular. For all their control after the opening goal, they seemed content not to find another, but Costa and Remy’s injuries should be taken into account.
After missing an opportunity to widen the gap at the top of the table to six points, the Blues will have to hope that the Red Devils’ resurgence continues for long enough to also trouble City.
In Manchester, however, master Van Gaal will take confidence from United’s best performance under his stewardship so far. Despite his pre-match claims that his side are still a work in progress, they were certainly able to rally enough to dent his Portuguese protege’s title challenge.