CHELSEA 1-MANCHESTER UNITED 0- BLUES ELIMINATE RED DEVILS IN FEISTY ENCOUNTER AT THE BRIDGE
So, if Paul Pogba is £89million of midfield player what, right now, would N’Golo Kante be worth? More, in real terms, obviously. Whether a club would pay it is another matter; equally, whether Kante has a price.
This was another performance that makes him as good as invaluable to Chelsea. Ominous, for those still to face them, too.
If Kante can add scoring goals from outside the area to his repertoire of hard running, hard tackling and largely being in two places at once for 90 minutes, then he might just turn out to be the most complete player in English football.
His accomplishments on Monday night included the winning goal and putting the world’s most expensive player, Pogba, in the shade. Yet to say he is Chelsea’s engine is to damn with faint praise, as vital as that role appears. Kante is more than just a midfield grafter, a destroyer, a guy who gives it to those who can play. He plays, too.
His goal after 51 minutes wasn’t just some pot-luck shot from outside the area, but a ball swept low into the corner of David de Gea’s goal from range, deciding the game when Chelsea’s more familiar avenues had proved dead ends.
Antonio Conte’s side had a man over for the best part of an hour thanks to Ander Herrera’s second sending-off of the season, but while they had chances to finish the game off late there was no other way through.
Jose Mourinho had set United up to resist and they did that well. Enter Kante. Already winning his head-to-head with Pogba at a canter — not that he ever canters — he settled the match with his first goal since October 23.
That, the visiting fans will ruefully testify, was against Manchester United, too, but it was the cherry on the top of a 4-0 win, not the main meal.
Kante got a straightforward square ball from Willian and, from a position that suggested little threat, noted that Pogba had not closed him down with sufficient urgency and clipped it quite superbly out of the reach of De Gea.
Two points made for the price of one, to leave Chelsea edging ever closer to the Double in Conte’s first season. The sending-off was the turning point obviously, but that does not mean Chelsea would not have found a way against 11. They usually have this season.
If nothing else, the way Mourinho approached this game made plain he is not the sort to make the same mistake twice. Having been well beaten here earlier in the season and with striking options limited to a peaky Marcus Rashford, he made plans for Chelsea, some of them quite extreme.
Phil Jones was detailed to keep watch over Eden Hazard, his team-mates eagerly filling in when he could not get close enough. It was brutal at times.
After 35 minutes, Manchester United were down to 10 and the persistent fouls on Hazard were responsible. It could be argued that Herrera was unfortunate, that his offences were not the worst and perhaps did not amount to a red card.
Yet, undeniably, he was also foolish, and his timing could barely have been worse. No matter United’s protests, in the end, a referee has to make a stand to exert his authority and protect the most gifted players. In that context, Herrera got what was coming to him.
He had already been booked after 20 minutes, bringing to an end another surging Hazard run. The Belgian was haring towards goal and had laid the ball off when Herrera blocked his path.
Did he know what he was doing? Probably. Does it say anywhere in the rulebook that a player must move out of the way to let another pass? No. Herrera seemed to be standing his ground more than intentionally moving into Hazard. Referee Michael Oliver saw it differently and booked him — to his, and Mourinho’s, disgust.
The fouls continued. Hazard bundled over by Jones. Hazard sent tumbling by Jones again. Not violent, but persistent. Oliver called the player over with Smalling, his captain, and delivered a lecture. The theme, one imagines, was: ‘Cut it out, leave him alone, or I’ll have to take action.’
From the restart, Hazard got the ball and Herrera tripped him. Well, in Oliver’s position, what would you have done? Yes, Hazard made a meal of it and fell quite dramatically, but, yes, it was a trip. If nothing else it was a challenge to Oliver’s authority — an act that as good as flicked a V-sign in his direction after the summit that had preceded it.
He was reaching for his cards almost before Hazard hit the floor. Herrera was incensed, again, so too Mourinho. For much of the game he had been at war with fourth official Mike Jones, Antonio Conte and the fans who once professed their love for him.
Jones had kept the managers apart on more than one occasion. When those in the stands barracked him, Mourinho responded with three fingers — whether to signify the number of times he thought Hazard had fallen cheaply, or the number of titles they owed him, who can say?
By now, we were at boiling point. After another confrontation, Jones called for back-up. Over came Oliver to warn the managers that Herrera might not be the only one leaving early if this continued. An uneasy truce resulted.
The game? Well, it was intriguing while 11 against 11. Manchester United clearly came with a very precise game plan which seemed to frustrate Chelsea rather well. Yet Hazard was never less than terrifying on the counter-attack and, through him, Chelsea forged the better of the play.
It was his run after 16 minutes, taking out Smalling with a single touch and sailing past Marcos Rojo that ended with De Gea’s first good save of the night. From the corner he made his second, a brilliant low stop to claw away an effort from Gary Cahill.
Chelsea could have scored on several occasions as the effects of playing them with 10 men took a toll.
Diego Costa should have converted a free header, Willian had a very useful shot curl just wide, De Gea saved from Cesc Fabregas in injury time — but the best chance of the second half fell to Rashford, capitalising on a mistake by David Luiz to skin Cahill and force a brilliant save from Thibaut Courtois.
It wasn’t much to show for a night that stretches Manchester United’s winless run against Chelsea to 12 games, though.
United had just 28 per cent possession and may hear more about what looked to be a Rojo stamp on Hazard late in the game. And if the Football Association are not showing much interest, a caller from Bournemouth may wish to engage them on the subject of double standards..