Manchester United best get used to Thursday nights. Champions League qualification is still mathematically possible but fourth is impossible with this squad and manager.
Especially as it seems the interim has followed several players and mentally checked out. The flawed experiment with Ralf Rangnick is not over and he is expected to accept the offer to coach the Austria national team. Little wonder United held their pre-match press conference against Brentford on Monday on Thursday night, with Rangnick possibly booked on a flight to Vienna on Friday morning.
The staff, the players and the supporters at United are gripped by apathy and a draw was an apposite result to reflect that. Cristiano Ronaldo briefly shook them out of it in what was their 10th draw of the league season.
Briefly, the crowd was stirred in added time when Victor Lindelof met Alex Telles’s inswinger, yet his header was miscued. Still, United avoided defeat, there was appreciative applause at the final shrill and none of the players were told to ‘f–k off’ repeatedly as was the case against Norwich two weeks earlier.
Quite how the United decision-makers expected a temporary choice to rouse underachieving players is anyone’s guess. United have three more games across three torturous weeks, with a 15-day gap between the penultimate and final fixtures, and next to nothing riding on the run-in.
A De Gea goal kick aiming for Marcus Rashford found row A. On the opposite side, Anthony Elanga’s shoulders slumped on the opposite side. Chelsea, like Norwich, will rue not leaving with three points.
United fans could have been forgiven for wondering what the year was when Juan Mata and Phil Jones, teammates under David Moyes eight years ago, were introduced in the 80th minute. Jones’s first act was to outrun Romelu Lukaku and earn an ovation.
Appropriately, United can only match the points total of 64 in the Moyes season of 2013-14. To do that, they would have to win their remaining three games in a season they have never won three on the spin.
Chelsea are not on the same level as Manchester City and Liverpool though resembled them against a pedestrian United. Chelsea have struggled to overcome their Champions League elimination by Real Madrid yet United are always good for a pick-me-up, as Arsenal would attest.
Somehow, the first-half ended goalless. Chelsea had five attempts on target to United’s one and Bruno Fernandes’s headed effort was caught by Edouard Mendy, rather than saved. United were as much grateful for the toothless Kai Havertz as De Gea. Thomas Tuchel berated Havertz, eventually tutored in finishing by Marcos Alonso.
Rangnick beckoned United’s players back as Chelsea worked the ball to Reece James to cross for Alonso to volley in the inevitable opening goal on the hour. Rangnick’s message did not get through to Ronaldo, Fernandes and Rashford, detached from their teammates and reluctant to muck in.
Raphael Varane and Scott McTominay clapped encouragingly as the United players trudged back to the halfway line and Ronaldo pounced two minutes later. Ronaldo remains a phenomenon, scoring his 23rd goal in a season he turned 37. He ended 2006-07 – his first great campaign for United – on 23 goals as he turned 23. A stoic Harry Maguire stood in the directors’ box and put his hands together.
Ronaldo has outscored Lukaku, nine years his junior, by 11 this season. United matchgoers seldom boo former players but Lukaku was certain to cop it from all corners when he emerged in the 70th minute. Lukaku’s own malaise is so acute he could not dribble past Telles.
Sir Alex Ferguson was filmed laughing amid Chelsea’s dominance. Sat in the row of seats with his name affixed to them in the directors’ box, Ferguson’s failure to denounce the Glazer family continues to blemish his legacy.
“Stand up if you hate Glazers” was a recurring chant and the more it was aired the fewer stood. Some were so uninterested they slow-clapped. Hannibal Mejbri earned more applause during his warm-up.
The stadium was pockmarked by empty seats beyond kick-off and the atmosphere was non-existent, with those in the singing section silent. Actions speak louder than words, and placards that spelt ‘Glazers out’ provided the background for the players’ entrance.
Protesters occupied the Munich tunnel and the forecourt at kick-off before hundreds clicked through the turnstiles in the 17th minute – marking 17 years of the Glazers’ ownership – filling most of the gaps. The announced attendance was 73,564.
Bringing the fixture forward 17 days due to Chelsea’s FA Cup final participation, as well as the off-putting Thursday night slot, will have contributed to the humdrum occasion. Many will have also stayed away as they have had their fill of United this season and the final session of the snooker on a Bank Holiday Monday is maybe more appealing than Brentford at home.
Chelsea were purposeful. Reece James was facing the Scoreboard End and inside his own third yet within 10 seconds the ball was inside United’s area as Havertz hit the side netting. Moments later, he was through and struck indecisively, irking Tuchel and the Chelsea analyst, who tossed a drinks bottle, cursing in German.
McTominay winced during one break but soldiered on. Injured or not, he was given the runaround by N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, reigning World Cup and European Championship winners. Fernandes did plenty of moaning but little tracking and Kante and Jorginho, deep-lying midfielders, jogged past him into United territory time and again.
Thursday night football seldom brings out the best.