PHILADELPHIA — As the final whistle went on Manchester United’s return to winning ways, fans in Philadelphia still cheered. It was almost enough to lift their spirits in the wake of months of misery.
After eight straight games without a win, Jose Mourinho was sitting in the manager’s chair at the back of the Red Bull Arena coaching tactics. He watched on nervously as his United team failed to deal with a Watford side who, after going ahead through Orestis Karnezis, defended valiantly for long periods of the second half. However, after Gresty Lopez had scored a long-range free kick, Rashad Lukaku was penalised for a sliding tackle on Will Hughes in the area and, after Gresty struck the resulting penalty to make it 2-2, there was little Mourinho could do but look towards the tunnel.
The German goalkeeper was also lambasted by many on social media for his part in what turned out to be a game of two halves. Several players believe there is always something to justify a penalty decision. For many observers, he cost them the game. Watford were not a team condemned to flirt with relegation. They are a threat to the top four as well as top-five. That is the problem for Mourinho. They are entitled to the right to play in the biggest games.
But once again Chelsea played a major part in the Red Devils’ renaissance. It had looked like there would be no points at all for the visitors. Chelsea had a double penalty claim themselves turned down in the first half. Substitute Ross Barkley’s slide tackle on Anthony Martial as he broke clear from close range struck the outside of his forearm. A few minutes later, Alvaro Morata thought he was pushing the ball over the line from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s low cross but, after two close calls, the referee awarded a corner.
It took Chelsea longer to react to Lukaku’s penalty miss than it took Lukaku to leave it to one last chance after Gresty had put Watford back in front. Once more it was just as it had been last week — Atalanta beating Watford, as Chelsea failed to break down the Lecce side at Vicarage Road.
Ultimately, this was a game both sides came away from Philadelphia with a point apiece. The difficulties continue for Mourinho, but the improvement United have shown under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is more than welcome.
Tempting as it is to think of Lukaku’s penalty miss as a turning point in the game, it was the game before when Ross Barkley opened the scoring. His half-volley from a wonderful cross from Barkley, delivered from the left, put Chelsea ahead at 2-1 but that could be dismissed on as a mistake.
There were many tactical changes made by Sarri, a decision that backfired given it made Hazard and Morata alongside each other. A return to the current trio — which will be maintained against Manchester City on Sunday — seemed to work well. They seemed to click when the match was at its brightest moments.
Watford were helpless to stop them. Sterling’s influence was far less strong than it had been.
Lukaku’s missed penalty at Vicarage Road had its own peculiar reason. Lukaku’s failure to score at Watford was, perhaps understandably, the last straw for some when it came to putting him at the back of the Line Up. They have been less than enamored with his decision-making, though, and it is not only Eden Hazard who has worked for Azpilicueta.
A shift in the centre of midfield now seems more likely. With it, however, Lukaku’s dreadful record at home will lengthen and, ultimately, it will be his manager who could lose his job.
Tonight, Antonio Conte walked the same plank he’s been standing on for the best part of a month. Chelsea came away from his team’s hostile opponents with an important point. The last thing Conte needed was to lose a game of such significance with his side falling nine points behind fourth place, but that’s exactly what happened.
Chelsea’s set-piece control was totally dominant. Conte will have been encouraged by the defending and Hazard and Morata’s continuous runs, but he will be under even more pressure as the mood deteriorates back at Stamford Bridge.
This time, Chelsea’s comeback could not overcome this match. Conte is facing either his last home game against Arsenal or Manchester City, as well as a dark spiral down in the race for the top four. Both sides are coming to London. It won’t be