MANCHESTER, England – Ander Herrera scored one goal, set up another and executed the perfect man-marking job on Eden Hazard to set up Manchester United's 2-0 win over Chelsea that opened up the Premier League title race on Sunday.
United didn't even need rested top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to consign the leaders to their fifth league loss of the season, which left them only four points ahead of Tottenham with six games left.
Marcus Rashford — Ibrahimovic's replacement up front — ran onto Herrera's through-ball to give United a seventh-minute lead. A constant menace for Chelsea's defense all game, Rashford ensured Ibrahimovic wasn't missed at Old Trafford.
Herrera shadowed Hazard in a tactical plan by United manager Jose Mourinho that limited the effectiveness of Chelsea's main attacking threat. On a rare occasion he left Hazard's side, Herrera popped up in Chelsea's area in the 49th minute to smash a deflected shot high into the net from 18 meters.
The result didn't just blow open the title race, it also left the battle for Champions League qualification intriguingly poised. United moved up to fifth place, four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand, and is six points behind third-placed Liverpool having played two fewer games.
United had conceded five goals and failed to score in its two losses to Chelsea this season — one in the league and one in the FA Cup — but Mourinho got his tactics spot on against his former team this time.
Rashford excelled, stretching Chelsea's center backs with the kind of movement and pace that Ibrahimovic would not be able to offer. Winger Jesse Lingard was played out of position in attack and added more mobility alongside Rashford. Herrera and Matteo Darmian did brilliant stifling jobs in man-marking Eden Hazard and Pedro, respectively. And United center backs Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly succeeded in riling the combustible Diego Costa, who was booked in the first half and played on the edge throughout.
As good a tactical masterclass as it was from Mourinho, there was a touch of fortune about both goals.
In the build-up to Rashford's goal, Herrera blocked with his hand a pass from Nemanja Matic but the infringement wasn't picked up. The United midfield anchorman ran forward and split the defense with his through-ball to Rashford, who got in behind David Luiz and bobbled a finish past Asmir Begovic — starting in place of the injured Thibaut Courtois.
Fans in the Stretford End chanted Herrera's name as he frustrated Hazard time and again in the first half, and they did so again after he made it 2-0 with a shot that clipped off the heel of Kurt Zouma and span beyond an unsighted Begovic.
Chelsea produced possibly its sloppiest display of the past seven months, with the leaders not helped by left wing-back Marcos Alonso pulling out of the match during the warm-up to be replaced by a center back in Zouma. That succeeded in unbalancing the team.
Chelsea is still the favorite for the title, with the only obvious stumbling block in its run-in being a trip to Everton on April 30. Its last four games are against Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion, Watford and Sunderland.
Tottenham doesn't look like letting up, though, after winning its last seven games and scoring 22 goals in the process.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
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