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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho masterminded a brilliant and unexpected 2-0 home victory over former club Chelsea on Sunday to breathe new life into the Premier League title race.
Mourinho gambled by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera’s goals gave United a win that leaves Chelsea just four points above Tottenham Hotspur with six games to play.
Victory at Old Trafford also lifted United to within four points of fourth-place Manchester City, on whom they have a game in hand, ahead of the derby at the Etihad Stadium on April 27.
It was a personal triumph for Mourinho, who saw his side thrashed 4-0 at Chelsea in October and was branded “Judas” by fans of his old club during last month’s FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge.
A wet, cold Manchester afternoon was the setting for United to end a run of 12 games without victory against Chelsea, stretching back to a 3-2 away win in October 2012.
Chelsea have now lost twice in four games, having gone down 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace earlier this month, which will give in-form Spurs fresh hope that the Blues may yet collapse as the finishing line nears.
The top two meet at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals next weekend in what now looks a significant test of Chelsea’s mettle.
United, meanwhile, will approach Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final second leg at home to Anderlecht, which is poised at 1-1, on the back of their best display under Mourinho.
Chelsea were without goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to an ankle problem, while Marcos Alonso succumbed to a virus, bringing Asmir Begovic and Kurt Zouma into their usual first XI.
Mourinho set United up to stop Chelsea, with Herrera and Matteo Darmian tasked with the responsibility of tracking dangermen Eden Hazard and Pedro wherever they went.
But despite Herrera’s chief role as a stifler, he created United’s seventh-minute opener, albeit in contentious circumstances.
He seemed to block Nemanja Matic’s pass with his right hand, but referee Robert Madley played on, enabling Herrera to split the Chelsea defence with a sublime through ball for Rashford.
The 19-year-old raced in behind David Luiz before clipping a shot past Begovic for his ninth goal of the season.
Costa became embroiled in penalty-box tangles with United centre-backs Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo and was booked for a late challenge on Paul Pogba.
With the willing Jesse Lingard in support of Rashford, United looked far more lively going forward.
Ashley Young twice spurned presentable shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, while Rashford saw a cross headed onto the roof of the net by Gary Cahill.
Short of a 25-yard drive by Costa that flashed wide in stoppage time, the half-time whistle sounded without Chelsea having offered anything in attack.
Any hopes the visitors had of masterminding a turnaround vanished within four minutes of kick-off in the second half as Herrera doubled United’s lead.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte sent on Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, with Pedro moving to wing-back, but still the league leaders toiled, Pedro twice curling shots over De Gea’s bar.
At the other end Rashford remained a constant menace, teeing up Lingard to bend a shot over and twice going close himself, ruffling the side-netting and testing Begovic at his near post.
When he departed in the 82nd minute, with Ibrahimovic taking his place, he was accorded a richly deserved standing ovation.
New Chelsea enforcer N’Golo Kante is so good that he is even better than Stamford Bridge legend Claude Makelele, fellow midfielder Nemanja Matic has declared.
Attention ahead of Sunday’s trip to Swansea City has focused on David Luiz, the Brazil centre-back who will make his second debut for Chelsea following his return from Paris Saint Germain on the final day of the transfer window.
But Matic highlighted the immediate impact of midfield partner Kante, another big-money signing who arrived from Premier League champions Leicester City, saying he has been instrumental in Chelsea’s perfect start under new boss Antonio Conte.
Kante has drawn comparisons with fellow Frenchman Makelele, who excelled in the holding midfield role during Chelsea’s back-to-back Premier League title triumphs in 2005 and 2006 during Jose Mourinhoâs first spell as manager.
But Matic told Sky Sports: “Many people say that he is the new Makelele, but I don’t think so.
“Makelele was a great player and we all respect him, me especially because I know that position and how it is difficult to play.
“But I think that N’Golo is better than him. He is doing his defensive job very well and with the ball he has some extra quality.
“It is very hard for him and it’s going to be hard, but I’m sure that he is ready. He is very important for us, especially in that position. You have to give balance to the team and he knows how he needs to do that job.”
Luiz’s return baffled pundits, but many Chelsea supporters were pleased to see the return of a player who helped the club to Champions League and Europa League success before moving to PSG for Â£50 million ($66 million, 59 million euros).
The defender’s reputation for making mistakes, however, has raised questions about the move to bring him back, even at a cut-price Â£32 million.
Conte, though, has no concerns.
“It’s important to have in a squad players with good personality, great personality,” said Conte.
“It’s important, this. Also, I want that great personality transposed on to the pitch. I’m very happy when we have great players with personality. It’s good. This changing room is a good changing room at Chelsea.”
The visit of Chelsea marks the start of a daunting run for Welsh club Swansea that includes games against Southampton, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Swansea’s opening-day victory over Burnley has been followed by losses to Hull and Leicester and left-back Neil Taylor acknowledged the significance of the coming run of fixtures.
“As a squad now we need to be ready for these next five to six games,” said the Wales international. “It’s a testing run against top teams, not just top teams but teams that are playing very well at the moment.
“We have to be on top form, but at the Liberty (Stadium) we feel we can beat anybody on our day.”
Swansea hope to have record signing Borja Baston available for the first time following his Â£15.5 million arrival from Atletico Madrid, while Taylor is included in a league squad for the first time this season after an extended break following Wales’s run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
The Premier League has always had worldwide appeal but instead of Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero taking top billing, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez now star in Leicester City’s title challenge as it nears its conclusion over the next few weeks.
From seven points adrift at the bottom of the table and seemingly relegation certainties a year ago to seven points clear at the top and in sight of their first English League title, Leicester’s turnaround has become one of the most talked-about stories in world sport.
Since joining the Football League in 1894, their best performance was a runners-up spot in the old first division in 1929 and, until this season, their chief claim to footballing fame, apart from three League Cup triumphs, was the unique achievement of reaching four FA Cup finals and losing them all.
The Premier League is watched by audiences measured in the billions across more than 200 countries. Even the United States is no longer immune, with rapidly growing viewing figures and Newsweek magazine giving up three pages to describe Leicester’s quest for the “upset of the century”.
Various global Leicester fan clubs, which for years tootled along quietly with a handful of dedicated members, have suddenly blossomed.
Typical are the New York Foxes, founded by twin brothers Jordan and Jason Becker who became Leicester fans in 1998 when American Kasey Keller played in goal for the team.
The club now gathers, along with fans of a host of other clubs, in The Football Factory cellar bar near the Empire State Building to watch the club’s games.
“It used to be just a couple of us but we now connect with ex-pats and folks coming over on holiday and now that the club is raising its profile, more and more people want to be around and watch,” Jason Becker said.
“I mean, how can you miss a game right now – and Leicester is everyone’s second-favourite team now, everyone seems to be pulling for us.”
His confidence did not quite run to backing his team for the title pre-season but he did not miss out entirely.
“Sadly, I didn’t get the 5,000 to 1 odds that other people had early in the season, but 7-1 is not so bad,” he said of a bet he laid when most people were still predicting the bubble would burst.
Thailand, home of club owner and duty-free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, has taken Leicester to heart too and Bangkok airport now greets arriving passengers with adverts featuring Leicester players.
Market stalls in the Thai capital selling unofficial replica shirts have begun to carry the blue of Leicester alongside their staples of Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Japan has adopted Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki as its new Premier League hero. A Reuters reporter in Tokyo last week was asked by his taxi driver the usual “Where are you from?” opening gambit and when he replied “England” the driver immediately asked the question on everyone’s lips: “What about Leicester? Can they win it?”
In France, where all-conquering Paris St Germain wrapped up the dullest league in Europe weeks ago, fans and media in search of drama have switched their interest across the channel.
Their focus is on Mahrez and N’Golo Kante as they wonder how the duo bumped along barely raising a ripple for years at Le Harve and Caen but now, after eight months in England, the bargain-buys-turned-internationals are vying for the Footballer of the Year award
Spanish fans brought up on decades of dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona are also revelling in the little-man nature of Leicester, and veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas, now playing in Portugal, captured the mood last week when he tweeted: “Everyone is passionate about their club, but everyone feels like Leicester are one of our own. INCREDIBLE!”
Much of Italy’s interest is centred on manager Claudio Ranieri, their much-travelled and much-loved compatriot who has belied his reputation by achieving success this season with one of the most settled line-ups of the Premier League era.
Bar-room nostalgia in his native Rome looks back to 1985 when Verona came out of nowhere to claim their first, only and similarly unlikely league title.
In South America, the trend also seems to draw comparisons with local against-the-odds successes and in Brazil, where as many as five Premier League games are screened live each weekend, everybody is talking about Leicester.
Chapecoense, a small club who were promoted in 2013 and have held their place in the top flight since in spite of their tiny budget, were so impressed by Leicester’s achievements that they invited them for a friendly via Twitter.
Leicester City trio Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane and West Ham United’s Dimitri Payet are the nominees for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Players’ player of the year.
Leicester’s unexpected Premier League title charge this season has been led by 21-goal striker Vardy, while Mahrez has chipped in with 16 goals and 11 assists and Kante has gained plaudits for his defensive midfield role.
Despite Arsenal looking unlikely to end their 12-year wait for the title, Ozil has almost single-handedly kept alive their faint hopes by scoring six goals and leading the assists chart with 18, two behind the all-time Premier League record.
Kane leads the race for the golden boot with 22 goals and has inspired Spurs’ surprising bid for their first title since 1961, while Payet, with nine goals and nine assists, has been pivotal to the Hammers’ Champions League dreams.
Kane is in contention to retain his Young Player of the Year award and he is joined by team mate Dele Alli, Everton duo Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho.
Alli, 20, joined from second-tier side Milton Keynes Dons in 2015 and his eight goals and 12 assists have been instrumental to Spurs’ title hopes, while goalkeeper Butland made 102 saves, the second most, before injury ruled him out of the season.
Despite Everton’s lacklustre campaign, Lukaku is in contention for the golden boot, having notched up 18 goals, and Barkley has shrugged off injury concerns to put in dominating displays.
Coutinho has shone under manager Juergen Klopp’s stewardship, netting seven goals and claiming six assists, while playing a key role in Liverpool’s League Cup run.
The winners of the awards will be announced on April 24.