Chelsea make light work of Man United

Posted by Phil Lythell

Chelsea ensured that they kept pace with Arsenal and Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table with a comfortable 3-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday.

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The Blues had entered the match as overwhelming favourites, a curious state of affairs given the stature of the opposition. As such, there was an overriding sense of caution amid the supporters, ironically as a result of their own confidence that David Moyes' team were there for the taking. Aware that an animal can be at its most dangerous when backed into a corner, Jose Mourinho had been at pains in the pre-match media briefings and in his programme notes that United's reputation counted for much more than their current travails. Yet looking back on the game, there was very little to worry about.

The result came so easily that Chelsea rarely looked unsettled, and although far from their best, they raced into a three-goal lead within 49 minutes. It helped that they showed ruthlessness in the penalty area, something that has not always been evident this season. But it came with so little resistance that one had to double-check the scoreboard to make sure that it really was Manchester United that they were playing.

To be fair to United, they started the game as the better side by far. All the energy and drive came from the men in red, and Chelsea were restricted to being mere spectators for the first 10 minutes. But for all their pretty play, they lacked any real penetration in central areas, and without the services of either Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie, they posed no serious goal threat. Moyes had obviously identified Chelsea's left flank as a potential weak spot, and knowing that Eden Hazard is not always the most diligent of defenders, they sought to isolate Cesar Azpilicueta and create two-on-one situations. They managed to execute that part of the plan effectively, but such was the solidity of Chelsea's centre-backs and the toothlessness of United's forwards that they never looked to be seriously troubling Blues goalkeeper Petr Cech.

Much credit for that has to go to Gary Cahill, who has grown into a fine defender. Having gained the trust of his manager and been given an extended run in the team, he has emerged to be just as influential a figure as John Terry in the heart of the defence. His pace now allows him to snuff out opposition attacks rather than just bail out of his own mistakes, and he acts as the perfect foil for Terry's defensive nous. Cahill has managed to eradicate the positional errors that stymied the early part of his Chelsea career, and now he is both decisive and secure. Not only that, but he presents a danger to his opposite number at the other end. It was his crisp cross that teed up Samuel Eto'o for his second goal and his powerful header that allowed the Cameroonian to seal his hat trick.

Eto'o had actually been a surprise selection, seeing as how Fernando Torres had scored an excellent goal against Hull City last weekend, albeit at the end of a disappointing individual performance. There have been many question marks surrounding Eto'o, with his pace having faded and his decision-making having seemingly suffered the same fate. But that was not the case on Sunday. The veteran striker's movement was exceptional, and his interplay with Willian, in particular, created all sorts of problems for the United defence.

Even though none of his three goals will contribute to any highlight reel of eye-catching strikes -- his first was deflected, his second should have been kept out by United goalkeeper David De Gea and his third was a tap-in from just a few inches out -- they were a just reward for an excellent display. It is just as well that Eto'o is showing some decent form after being introduced as a late substitute for Chelsea's goal scorer, as Torres has been ruled out for a number of weeks suffering a knee ligament injury. The former Inter Milan man has now netted against both Liverpool and Manchester United in recent weeks and will hope to replicate that trend in the Blues' next big game away at Manchester City on Feb. 3.

Returning to the match, the win was all the more gratifying, as it was achieved without Hazard and Oscar playing to their full potential. Hazard was his usual effervescent self, and moments of magic flow from him even when he is sleepwalking. Yet he was never required to take the game by the scruff of the neck, even if he did tie Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling into knots throughout the match. Teammate Oscar took a good 20 minutes to get into the game, having given the ball away on several occasions in the early exchanges. He did improve markedly as the game wore on, but, like Hazard, he did not need to be exceptional to be effective.

Such was the relative simplicity with which Chelsea controlled large swaths of the match; the frustration clearly got to the United players and Nemanja Vidic was sent off for a rash challenge on Hazard. The decision from referee Phil Dowd -- who had a dreadful game throughout -- was a little harsh on the defender, although that was more than offset by Rafael's wild lunge on Cahill moments later that brought only a yellow card. The usually placid Chelsea defender was so incensed that his reaction indicated just how dangerous the tackle was, and the hot-headed Brazilian was incredibly lucky to avoid a second red card in his last two appearances against the Blues following his dismissal at Old Trafford last season.

Nevertheless, those indiscretions were not enough to knock Chelsea off their stride. They now sit ominously on the shoulders of Arsenal and Manchester City having vanquished a once-feared foe. The momentum is starting to build.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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