MANCHESTER, England â€” A tactical masterclass from Jose Mourinho ensured the path to the English Premier League title will no longer be a procession for his former club, Chelsea.
Only four points separate Chelsea and second-placed Tottenham with six games left after Manchester United’s 2-0 win over the lacklustre leaders opened up the title race on Sunday. At one stage four weeks ago after a 2-1 win over Stoke, Chelsea held a 13-point lead.
It was a signature win for Mourinho near the end of his first season at United. He detailed Ander Herrera and Matteo Darmian to man-mark Chelsea forwards Eden Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez, made the bold call to start Marcus Rashford ahead of top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and played two youngsters â€” Rashford and winger Jesse Lingard â€” up front in a surprise move.
The decisions paid off brilliantly, with Rashford and Herrera scoring the goals and being the star performers at Old Trafford. Chelsea didn’t have a shot on target in a league game for the first time in nearly a decade. Hazard barely had a meaningful touch.
“I think it was almost perfect,” Herrera said.
Chelsea might be starting to wobble. This loss came 15 days after a 2-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace, while Spurs have won seven straight league games â€” scoring 22 goals in the process.
Chelsea’s only tough remaining game appears to be a trip to Everton on April 30, and it could hardly ask for four better fixtures to finish the season: Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, Watford and Sunderland.
Still, the pressure is certainly on the leaders now.
“We have to think that there are six finals from now until the end,” Conte said. “The league is open and we have a 50 per cent (chance) to win the league.”
United was playing between two games against Anderlecht in the Europa League quarterfinals, with many pundits suggesting Mourinho’s focus had switched to earning Champions League qualification through winning the European competition.
Dropping Ibrahimovic â€” United’s top scorer this season with 28 goals â€” was another sign of that, but Mourinho insisted he wasn’t prioritizing.
United moved back into fifth place, four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand. The Manchester rivals meet at City’s Etihad Stadium on April 27.
Liverpool, which beat West Bromwich Albion 1-0 away in Sunday’s other game, is six points clear of United in third place but has played two more matches.
Here’s a closer look at both games:
MANCHESTER UNITED 2, CHELSEA 0
Offering more mobility than Ibrahimovic, Rashford tormented Chelsea’s defence all game and showed there is a bright future at United if the Swedish striker decides to end his stay at Old Trafford after just one year.
Rashford opened the scoring in the seventh minute when he ran onto Herrera’s pass behind David Luiz and sent a shot bobbling past goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
Herrera looked to have handled the ball in the build-up to that goal but he wasn’t penalized. And the midfielder made Chelsea pay even further when he drove in a shot that deflected off Kurt Zouma and span high into the net in the 49th.
Chelsea was without first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was injured, and wing back Marcos Alonso pulled out of the game during the warm-up after suffering from a virus during the week.
Alonso’s absence, in particular, unbalanced Chelsea, which put in its worst performance since a 3-0 loss to Arsenal in September that forced manager Antonio Conte into a season-defining switch to a 3-4-3 formation.
It was Chelsea’s fifth league loss of the season and first to United in 13 matches dating to 2012. United’s unbeaten run in the league extended to 22 games, the longest in Europe’s top five leagues.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION 0, LIVERPOOL 1
Roberto Firmino scored Liverpool’s winning goal for the second straight game as his team climbed back above Manchester City into third place.
Much of the pre-match buildup focused on Liverpool’s issues in coping with set-pieces â€” a real strength of West Bromwich under Tony Pulis. There was a sense of irony that West Brom ended up getting undone in that department, with James Milner’s free kick being flicked on by Lucas Leiva for Firmino to head home at the far post.
Liverpool dominated but needed goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to spread himself and block Matt Phillips’s attempted chip in a late chance for West Brom.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press