Jesse Lingard caused Old Trafford to reverberate with noise after his 75th-minute header sealed a win that took Manchester United back into second place ahead of Liverpool.
The creator was Romelu Lukaku, his neat cross finding the substitute, after the No 9’s first goal for United against top-six opposition had cancelled out Willian’s opener.
José Mourinho praised a fine display from his centre-forward. “He played fantastically well. He had in my opinion the same start as the team, the team didn’t start well and it happened to him: he was losing some balls in the first control. He was a little bit lost but then he went together with the team – improving, improving.”
The victory means Chelsea slip to fifth and United are six points clear of the London club in the race to secure a Champions League place.
After Mourinho (perhaps studiously) failed to namecheck Antonio Conte in his programme notes there was a pre- and post-match handshake between the feuding pair and they were later seen sharing a smile. The United manager made two changes: Anthony Martial replaced Juan Mata and Paul Pogba was reinstated for the injured Ander Herrera after being dropped for the draw at Sevilla. Conte stood down Pedro for Álvaro Morata and Cesc Fŕbregas for Danny Drinkwater.
It was the latter who prompted Chelsea’s opening foray, with a sweeping ball that won a corner. It came to nothing, yet when the visitors next attacked David de Gea was beaten.
Fortunately for United the bar was not, with a fluid move in which Eden Hazard found Marcos Alonso on the left ending when Morata volleyed the ball off the woodwork from his team-mate’s first-time delivery.
From here United gained a foothold. Anthony Martial, Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez and Nemanja Matic all began to see the ball. When Sánchez floated in a diagonal free-kick, though, it went straight into Thibaut Courtois’s hands.
Pogba’s opening contribution was to find Antonio Valencia along the right and after he crossed Sánchez might have done better with Lukaku’s chest-down.
The early exchanges were open. Chelsea utilised wide areas to create space, with Victor Moses probing near United’s goal on the right.
United emerged from the ensuing lull on top. Lukaku twice received the ball in a threatening position but his first touch, then a lack of space, blunted his potency. Sánchez was guilty of a bad miss when arriving late for a Martial pass. The Chilean had only to stab home either side of Courtois; instead he dribbled the ball straight to the goalkeeper.
Pogba’s best moment of the half drew a yellow card for N’Golo Kanté. Yet after his barracking run caused the midfielder to foul him, disaster for Pogba and delight for Chelsea followed.
Valencia dinked in a cross and Willian headed clear. Yet after Pogba failed to challenge, the ball went again to the Brazilian and he found Hazard. After galloping alongside his team-mate in the inside-right channel, possession came back to him via a delightful return pass from the Belgian. Now, Willian took a touch and smashed the ball home past De Gea, who should have done better, the ball passing near enough to his body for it to be repelled.
A fine equaliser was soon to follow, though. This was intricate, impressive stuff. Matic found Sánchez, whose precise ball hit Martial’s feet and when his equally exact pass went to Lukaku, the Belgian scored his 22nd United goal.
That meant United began the second half in classic Mourinho stick-or-twist territory. Despite being the home side and proud progenitors of attack-first football, this is just not the Portuguese’s default mode.
His team, though, did go for the win. Pogba threaded a ball forward, Sánchez collected on the area’s edge and the home crowd responded noisily. Next zipped passes between Matic, Pogba and Sánchez moved United forward at a rare speed. The attack eventually led to a corner from which Sánchez committed the cardinal sin of hitting the first defender.
De Gea atoned for his earlier error by saving a Drinkwater shot that came dipping in the mid-afternoon sun, in what was a warning to the home side.
For the last 25 minutes Mourinho introduced Lingard for Martial. His first contribution was to dispossess Willian and launch a United attack.
They were finishing the stronger. Scott McTominay outmuscled Hazard and Chelsea were spun out of position. When the ball eventually came to Sánchez his pivot-cross was hammered instantly at Courtois by Lukaku.
Four minutes from time Morata scored a goal that was adjudged offside. Conte said: “Yeah, but for sure it was onside – this type of situation can change the final result and for this reason I am very positive they should use VAR.”
He did confirm that Hazard’s earlier substitution was not for an injury. “It was a tactical decision,” Conte said.