Cristiano Ronaldo snatches point for Manchester United against Chelsea

Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea: Marcos Alonso gave the Blues the lead after controlling the game for long spells at Old Trafford

Mark Critchley
At Old Trafford
Thursday 28 April 2022 22:34
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<p>Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring</p>

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring

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What could have been a third consecutive Premier League defeat to equal a club record was instead Ralf Rangnick’s first point against a top-four opponent since taking interim charge of Manchester United. Yet on a night when fresh questions emerged over Rangnick’s level of involvement in next season’s cultural reset, United relied upon the same old foundations that predated his arrival: David de Gea’s saves and a goal by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Chelsea should treat this as two points dropped given that they were vastly superior to their hosts until Marcos Alonso’s volley on the hour mark gave them a lead that they almost immediately surrendered. Thomas Tuchel will be disappointed not to have moved a step closer to securing a top-four finish and a place in next season’s Champions League, but that will surely come sooner or later.

Even after escaping with a point they hardly deserved, United cannot say the same. Top four remains a mathematical possibility but even that infinitesimal chance could be extinguished in the next round of league fixtures. For an hour, Chelsea demonstrated the clear gulf in quality between these two sides and the work Erik ten Hag will need to do in order to turn his new employers into contenders again.

Barely a day seems to go by anymore without a new revelation at Old Trafford. The latest, which emerged in the hours before kick-off, is that Rangnick appears set to take charge of the Austrian national team, with an announcement potentially coming in the next few days. Rangnick confirmed he will continue in his consultancy position beyond the end of the season, though it puts paid to the notion that he will be in the management team of Ten Hag.

As if that was not enough, another pre-match protest against the Glazer ownership meant that Old Trafford was only around two-thirds full as the players walked out, while a ‘Glazers Out’ banner was unfurled in the Stretford End and the smell of cordite creeped over the cantilever roofs. United stress they are working hard to improve engagement with fans but there clearly remains work to do.

Marcus Rashford tries to evade Cesar Azpilicueta’s tackle

This is not the only club with problems, of course. News of Roman Abramovich hiking Chelsea’s price up by a cool £500m at the 11th hour of the takeover process was a timely reminder of that, and of how exhausting the second half of this season must have proved for Tuchel and his players. But at least the most serious issues at Stamford Bridge are largely limited to matters off-the-pitch.

On it, they were having plenty of joy against a United side that left acres of space to play in. Rangnick’s aim upon appointment in November was to shore up the defence that risked conceding the most goals of any United side since 1979. They still risk conceding the most goals of any United side since 1979 – three more will do it – thanks to the uncoordinated shape and structure associated with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final days.

Reece James, restored to his more natural wing-back role, ran the opening stages in wide open expanses down the right and stung De Gea’s palms with an early sighter. In a pre-match interview with broadcasters, the United goalkeeper revealed that he is “embarrassed” by the recent poor form. This was another night when he had far less to be ashamed of than those playing in red in front of him.

Marcos Alonso celebrates scoring their first goal with Reece James

Were it not for De Gea, Chelsea would surely have been ahead at the end of a half that they dominated. With almost two-thirds of possession and a shot count in double figures, they should have had more to show for their superiority than just two clear-cut chances. Both fell to Kai Havertz, who struck the first into De Gea’s chest and headed the second into his hands at point-blank range. And clearly, he did not spend the interval composing himself, wasting another promising counter-attack at the start of the second half.

Havertz did have a hand – or rather, a head – on Chelsea’s goal when it finally arrived on the hour mark. It was his off-balance flick on of a Reece James cross that sat up kindly for Alonso, who volleyed straight and true into the far corner. De Gea could do nothing to stop this one and it was the least that Chelsea’s dominance had deserved. It was a surprise that it had taken them so long, but even more staggering when they threw their hard-earned lead away in no time at all.

It was Ronaldo, of course. It usually is now. The debate over whether or not he is a damaging influence on the team has receded of late – especially after five goals in his three games – even though this upturn in form has coincided with United only playing worse. Whatever the answer is, his goals are just about keeping this team competitive. Ronaldo’s run in behind was as timely and intelligent as Nemanja Matic’s lofted pass over the top of the defence. His finish past Edouard Mendy was emphatic. The Chelsea goalkeeper had barely had a save to make but was picking the ball up from out of his net.

Ronaldo to the rescue: he made a typically well-timed run in behind the Chelsea defence

Ronaldo tested Mendy once more with a low, hard shot from an angle but by that point, with the final 10 minutes approaching, you sensed that even Rangnick was ready to declare. On a night when a spate of injuries meant much of United’s bench was made up of academy products, he turned to Phil Jones and Juan Mata for inspiration. So much for that reset. Almost immediately, Chelsea went close to a winner with James striking the upright after a cute backheel by Mason Mount.

Alejandro Garnacho, one of the exciting young prospects who make up United’s Youth Cup finalists, was introduced for a cameo in stoppage time. There is a future to build at Old Trafford, whether Rangnick is part of it or not, but for now his team is still getting by on the relics of the past.

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