Jose Mourinho got the better of former club Chelsea as Manchester United injected life into their top-four hopes – and the Premier League title race.
Much was riding on today’s Old Trafford encounter, with the battle for Champions League football heating up as Antonio Conte’s table-toppers attempt to ward off ever-improving Tottenham.
The fixture lived up to the pre-match hype as Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera secured a 2-0 win which gave Mourinho revenge for this season’s defeats at Stamford Bridge.
The result meant the leaders’ cushion over Spurs remained at four points – the same tally that separates the Red Devils from a Champions League berth after this weekend’s games.
Whatever the gap, this is a timely shot in the arm for the home side as they try to juggle their Europa League exertions and kick-start a league campaign punctuated by draws.
Unlike on so many occasions this term, United managed to turn dominance into goals as they exacted revenge for the last month’s FA Cup quarter-final defeat and October’s 4-0 humbling – the last time Mourinho’s men lost a league match.
United flew out of the blocks and Rashford, leading the line in place of tired top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, turned home a fine seventh-minute opener.
Herrera provided the assist after his handball was missed and the player sent off at Stamford Bridge last month rifled home a deflected second four minutes after the break.
Chelsea failed to muster so much as a shot on target as a breathless match came to a conclusion, giving Mourinho a win against the club that sacked him in December 2015.
The United boss claimed beforehand that facing Chelsea came with no extra emotion, but the importance of this match was clear.
Mourinho made four changes against a Chelsea side without Thibaut Courtois – manager Conte refused to comment on speculation that the goalkeeper’s ankle injury was sustained playing basketball in a commercial shoot.
Asmir Begovic came in for his first league appearance of the campaign, playing behind a well-oiled back line that was thrown off-kilter before kick-off.
An issue in the warm-up led to Marcos Alonso hastily being replaced by Kurt Zouma in a re-jigged defence that was immediately under the cosh.
Rashford snatched at a shot when United got their first sight of goal, but coolly made amends soon after.
An exquisite Herrera pass was latched onto by the 19-year-old, breaking through and showing great composure to direct home.
Old Trafford erupted at a seventh-minute opener that Chelsea would have every right to feel aggrieved about, given Nemanja Matic saw a pass handled by Herrera in the build-up.
Referee Robert Madley was soon the focus of the home side’s ire as Diego Costa avoided sanction for needlessly shoving Eric Bailly – but the combustible striker was booked for a challenge on the centre-back later in the half.
Frustration continued to bubble under the surface and the Chelsea forward clutched his face in pain after being caught by Marcos Rojo, who also appeared to have been caught before they collapsed to the deck.
For all of Costa’s bluster, a wayward strike from distance was the best he could muster, while at the other end Begovic breathed a sigh of relief as Gary Cahill nearly headed into his own goal.
But, four minutes into the second half, the visitors’ goal was breached again.
Stand-in captain Ashley Young was unable to get away a shot but the ball fell for Herrera to produce a thumping strike, taking a deflection on its way past Begovic.
Jesse Lingard curled one over soon after and Old Trafford erupted as the net rippled in the 61st minute, only for it to quickly dawn on fans that Rashford had hit wide.
A curling Pedro shot deflected over as Chelsea looked to reduce the deficit, although Rashford’s strength and willingness could have brought a third had he made a cleaner connection with his shot.
It was the visitors pushing as the rain began to pour, with Rojo earning a booking for a challenge on old foe Costa.
Cesc Fabregas joined him in the book for a lunge on Michael Carrick, but there was to be no red cards in this intense clash – nor was there to be a shot on target for the Blues throughout the entire game.