LONDON: Antonio Conte provided a perfect birthday present for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who is 50 on Monday, by presiding over a revived Blues display which resulted in a 4-0 humiliation for Jose Mourinho’s outclassed Manchester United.
United’s tradition of attacking, entertaining football has had to be sacrificed in pursuit of results. Hence the defensive strategy which earned a goalless draw at Liverpool last Monday will become commonplace. United need success to shore up the multiplicity of sponsorships which keep them roughly level with Real Madrid in the world football money game.
Even the results are not coming.
Mourinho won seven major titles at Chelea so his first visit to Stamford Bridge in the opposition technical area was always going to be more about him than about the two clubs, just as Wednesday in the League Cup will again be as much as Mourinho v Guardiola as about United v City, however the old rivals rotate their squads with more important targets in mind.
Priority target for Mourinho is winning the Premier League but, for all his powers, they are only an outside bet. A Chelsea team in mid-construction emphasised the point by the way in which they raced into a two-goal lead after only 22 minutes.
The first goal came after only 30 seconds when Chris Smalling left a long through ball and David De Gea was beaten to the bounce by Pedro who rounded the goalkeeper and scored with his first shot on target of the season. It was the sixth time in the Premier League that United had conceded a goal inside the first minute.
This was the fastest Premier goal of the season and, to make matters worse for Mourinho, England centre-back Gary Cahill scored a second within another 20 minutes.
Chelsea scored against Leicester with a corner flicked on at the near post by Nemanja Matic and United failed to do their homework. This time Antonio Valencia provided the flick and the ball ricocheted off Ander Herrera and sat up neatly for Cahill to strike his first league goal of term.
Diego Costa, twice, might have made matters even worse for Mourinho but was twice denied when on the brink of scoring.
United had struggled to cope with Conte’s favoured 3-4-3 system. Mourinho’s halftime readjustment was to switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 with Marouane Fellaini being replaced by Juan Mata, twice previously Chelsea’s player of the year and taking up a role on the attacking right of midfield.
Mourinho had few other attacking options with captain Wayne Rooney absent through injury. Further trouble followed with an injury to Eric Bailly who had to be substituted by Marcos Rojo, making his first league appearance under Mourinho.
United duly improved but without creating the sort of openings which Zlatan Ibrahimovic was demanding to end a run of four league games without a goal.
Instead it was Chelsea who struck again with Eden Hazard providing a decisive finish to a superb team movement. This was the fourth successive game in which Hazard had scored including two international outings for Belgium.
Last season Hazard had been a shadow of his old self; he could not have chosen a more apposite occasion on which to demonstrate that he is back at his best in front of a stone-faced Mourinho.
Chelsea fans interrupted their cheers of delight only to aim chants of: “What a waste of money!” at the anonymous Paul Pogba before his rival midfielder, Ngolo Kante, took a simple return pass and scored No4.
Suddenly Chelsea were up to fourth in the table and they, rather than United, were looking much more serious title contenders.