MANCHESTER: Manchester United bought beleaguered manager Louis van Gaal some much-needed respite with an improved display in yesterday’s 0-0 draw at home to under-performing Premier League champions Chelsea. Van Gaal has admitted that he is contemplating leaving Old Trafford after a wretched slump in form, but although his team have now gone eight games without victory in all competitions, they avoided sinking to five straight defeats for the first time since Dec 1936.
In a performance that will give United’s board reason to hope the Dutchman may yet steer the club out of their dip, the home side played with greater enterprise than of late and hit the woodwork through Juan Mata and Anthony Martial. But Chelsea had their moments, too, and might have given Guus Hiddink the first win of his second spell as interim manager had David de Gea not saved smartly from John Terry, Pedro Rodriguez and Cesar Azpilicueta or Nemanja Matic not blazed over when clean through in the second half.
The result left Chelsea, unbeaten against United in nine encounters, three points above the relegation zone, while their opponents are five points off the top four in sixth place. Meanwhile, the spectre of Jose Mourinho, sacked by Chelsea 11 days ago, continues to haunt Van Gaal, whose future remains uncertain. His face and ‘Special One’ nickname adorned scarves sold outside Old Trafford by opportunistic stallholders, while his name was chanted by the away fans inside the ground.
Rested for the 2-0 defeat at Stoke City, Wayne Rooney was one of four players brought in by Van Gaal – Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin the others – and the captain set the tone for the hosts in the first half with his confident probing and crisp passing. Playing up front, with Martial exiled to the left, the England captain set up two early chances for Mata and Schneiderlin, the Spaniard slamming a shot against the bar, the Frenchman drilling wide.
In between, United goalkeeper De Gea produced a brilliant one-handed save after Terry met Willian’s right-wing corner with a bullet header, but for most of the first half it was one-way traffic. Martial was a menace with his relentless desire to get the ball down and run, driving a shot against the left-hand post after skinning Branislav Ivanovic and drawing a booking for John Mikel Obi – preferred to Cesc Fabregas by Hiddink – with a burst from halfway.
Shortly before the half-hour, Rooney picked up a loose ball and took aim from 30 yards with a shot that was arrowing into the top-left corner until the flying Thibaut Courtois pushed it behind. United’s level dropped as half-time approached and they survived a scare early in the second half when De Gea produced a fine double-save to thwart first Pedro, teed up by the impressive Eden Hazard, and then Azpilicueta. The home side were soon back on the attack and it took a tremendous reflex stop from Courtois to prevent Ander Herrera tucking away Martial’s drilled left-wing cross.
But United’s fans’ hearts leapt into their mouths again moments later when from Pedro’s pass, Matic suddenly found himself bearing down on De Gea, only for the Serbian midfielder to hoist his shot into the crowd, unleashing a burst of mocking laughter around the ground. The final chance fell to Rooney, picked out at the back post by substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, but from inside the six-yard area the United number 10 volleyed well over. Frustrated, Rooney planted his studs into Oscar’s calf shortly after and was lucky to escape with a booking. – AFP