Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United: José Mourinho Stunned by Morata Creating 8-Point Gap in Title Race

At full-time, José Mourinho stood at the top of the tunnel at Stamford Bridge, lingering, just as he had done two hours earlier. But the expression on his face was entirely different: swagger had been displaced by trauma. 

It may have been down to the realisation that Pep Guardiola and Manchester City now have an eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League. Or, possibly, how short his team had fallen in west London against a Chelsea team supposedly on the verge of crisis. But, just maybe, it was watching Antonio Conte, his new nemesis in England, striding straight onto the turf at full-time, ignoring the usual post-match pleasantries between managers. 

Conte’s players deserved his full praise. He hugged the impressive, immovable Andreas Christensen, promoted to the defense ahead of David Luiz, who was dropped from the squad entirely. He pulled N’Golo Kante into an embrace, clearly relieved at how the industrious midfielder had returned a balance to his team. And he thrust his arms around Álvaro Morata, the man who has helped paper over the cracks at Chelsea this season, and who provided the moment of class here to win this tie. 

When Morata made the £60 million move from Real Madrid to Chelsea in the summer, it was Cesar Azpilicueta who helped him settle in. He welcomed him to the Spanish contingency at the club’s Cobham training ground. He helped him find a temporary home in London. The two men have a clear bond, one that proved to be the difference just ten minutes into the second half. 

Alvaro Morata Alvaro Morata at Stamford Bridge in London, November 5. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty

Driving in-field, Azpilicueta delivered a whipped cross into the United area that found Morata, alone and unmarked. The striker rose high, arched his neck, and sent the ball back toward the far post, looping into the net. David de Gea in the United goal could only stand and watch. It was a sumptuous header, the type of skill that impressed Mourinho so much he gave Morata his debut at Real Madrid in 2010, and has seen the two men keep in touch ever since. Morata shouldn’t expect his next text from Mourinho too soon now, though. 

Related: Alvaro Morata on texting Jose Mourinho, his transfer options and working with Conte

This match ended up being the tight and tense clash that the Premier League was made famous for when Mourinho first arrived in English football. Fears that it would be the type of drab non-contest that he has been accused of creating lately, tactically nullifying games against title rivals, were unfounded. Within the first 10 minutes, both teams could and should have scored. 

Chelsea actually did in the sixth minute, but the goal was disallowed—a decision that appeared slightly unfair. Marcos Alonso’s cross was turned past De Gea by Phil Jones, but referee Anthony Taylor adjudged Morata to have fouled the England center-back. Two minutes later at the other end, Marcus Rashford found himself unmarked at the far post but headed over Thibaut Courtois’ crossbar. He should be studying footage of Morata this week, who has scored five of his eight goals for Chelsea via his head. 

Prior to kick-off though, the headline news had been Conte’s decision to drop Luiz, but also the return of Kante, who had been out injured since the start of October. Kante’s involvement returned a balance to Conte’s team. His industry and artistry provides a significant difference to Chelsea, giving Cesc Fabregas license to roam and freeing Tiemoue Bakayoko of the defensive responsibilities—which was clear in the first half. 

Fabregas was dictator in the middle of the field. He picked out Davide Zappacosta on the right wing who sent a cross that squirmed and skid through a crowd of players, falling to Bakayoko. He took his shot first time and sliced it wide. Minutes later, he picked up the ball again in United’s half but his shot, once again, failed to test De Gea. Chelsea was taking control of the game, dominating in possession. 

United’s best chance of the half came through Romelu Lukaku in the 16th minute. A cross ball was chested down by the Belgian striker, who shifted the ball to his right but his fierce drive was saved by the outstretched Courtois. Lukaku failed to impose himself on the game and the criticism begins to rise again on whether he can perform in the big games, having drawn a blank against Liverpool, Tottenham and now Chelsea. 

Conte’s team continued to create chances. Morata shot straight at De Gea after the half-hour mark and Christensen headed over from a Fabregas corner just before half-time. Conte simmered on the sideline but began to boil as his team spurned each opportunity. 

So when the goal came 10 minutes into the second half, the Italian threw his fists to the sky with relief. He punched the air at Morata’s eighth goal of the season. It was money well spent. 

"Antonio, Antonio," reverberated around Stamford Bridge. Mourinho reacted quickly. Within five minutes, he had Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini warmed up and ready to come on. The big Belgian’s impact was almost immediate when he knocked down to Rashford, but the 20-year-old’s shot was deflected to safety. Conte introduced Antonio Rudiger and removed Zappacosta which eased the impact of Fellaini. 

Fellaini’s lack of fitness was clear to see. He was caught in possession by Fabragas and Morata failed to convert the opportunity. Just 10 minutes later, it was Bakayoko who nicked the ball from Fellaini but shot wide. Mourinho and United were let off. 

The story could have been very different for Fellaini. But for the fingertips of Courtois, he would have been the hero, allowing Mourinho to take a point back to the north west of England. With only a minute to go, Fellaini sent a cross toward the bottom corner of the Chelsea goal but his countryman tipped away to safety. 

Mourinho's last switch saw Jesse Lingard introduced for Ashley Young but Conte responded by bringing on Danny Drinkwater for Fabregas, who receieved a standing ovatation. United pushed in the final minutes but Chelsea held firm. It wasn't meant to be. 

Conte purred with excitement and Mourinho trudged back down the Stamford Bridge tunnel. This used to feel like home to him. 

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