What began as a much-anticipated clash in the battle for the top four ended up as a 0-0 draw that served as a 90-minute advert for why Chelsea and Manchester United are expected to fight for Erling Haaland’s signature this summer.
That particular off-field battle might prove more of a spectacle than this Stamford Bridge stalemate, albeit one which improved after a dour first half and is notable for another entry into the growing list of differing handball interpretations in the VAR era.
After 14 minutes, following an Edouard Mendy save from Marcus Rashford’s powerful free kick, referee Stuart Attwell decided that Callum Hudson-Odoi did not move his hand toward the ball when it struck the limb while he was attempting to clear under pressure from Mason Greenwood.
It was a curious decision, given the evidence before Attwell’s eyes, but neither side did enough thereafter to create a convincing argument they should have won the game; both were perhaps inhibited by a degree of caution in their approach, but each also showed bluntness in attack.
United are the Premier League’s top goal scorers — their total is 53 is one ahead of runaway leaders Manchester City, whose title celebration planning can begin in earnest now they are 12 points clear at the summit — but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have registered five goalless draws against the traditional “Big Six” this season.
Their last goal from open play in such matches was Scott McTominay’s late strike against Man City on March 8 last year, since when 720 minutes have passed. It indicates that, for all their attacking prowess orchestrated expertly by Bruno Fernandes, United still require a match-winning forward who can decide games of fine margins.
“We’re not scoring enough goals, that’s for sure,” Solskjaer said after this latest shutout. “We’ve come away with another good clean sheet, but as I said before this game, the next step for this team is to win these games and score the goal we need to get three points.
“We haven’t had the quality or the fine margins or the luck, but mostly today it was about a lack of quality in the last third. We had some moments that were close. Some near moments. But we didn’t have enough so that’s the next step for us. We will improve.”
There remains hope that the solution can come from within. It was a year ago this week when Solskjaer described Mason Greenwood, then 18, as being on the path to becoming “more or less the complete No. 9” once he develops into a more physically imposing player. The question is whether United are prepared to wait.
Just past the half hour mark here, Antonio Rudiger left a boot on Greenwood as the ball disappeared, not in a way worthy of serious sanction, but more the type of tackle to intimidate the teenager. Greenwood took a forlorn look at the nearby assistant referee, who gave the protest short shrift, prompting the England international to drop his head in disappointment.
Greenwood is a supreme talent in his own right and went close to scoring midway through the second period with a fiercely struck shot from the edge of the box, but he was not able to impose himself sufficiently to avoid being replaced by Anthony Martial, who possesses United’s No. 9 shirt and has been given an extended period to prove himself without ever truly convincing.
Rashford possesses the quality to play through the middle, but continues to look at his post potent drifting in from the left, while Edinson Cavani — who missed this game through injury — has had a positive impact and, with seven goals, affected matches in his own right and is expected to stay for a second season at Old Trafford, but he is 34.
As such, a longer-term signing is required and Haaland, who turns 21 in July, has piqued interest across Europe. His availability this summer could be dictated by Borussia Dortmund’s fortunes in seeking Champions League qualification, but United, Man City and Chelsea are among the handful of teams that can afford an asking price of up to £150 million in the COVID-19 affected market.
The Blues spent £220m before this season, but a deal for the Norway international is still considered viable by owner Roman Abramovich; despite the volume of recent additions, there is a Haaland-shaped hole in Thomas Tuchel’s team.
Olivier Giroud is performing the Cavani role with greater efficiency than many expect, but this was an off day for the French striker, who was unable to get himself on the end of a dangerous Hudson-Odoi cross in the first half and only completed nine passes in United’s half overall.
Giroud was substituted with 25 minutes remaining as Tuchel opted to use substitute Christian Pulisic as a split striker alongside Hakim Ziyech, who himself was later replaced by Timo Werner after having an excellent chance brilliantly saved by David De Gea. Reece James, on as a half-time substitute, had a follow-up shot superbly blocked by Luke Shaw in what proved to be Chelsea’s brightest moment.
“In this highest level, at some points, maybe two big chances have to be enough,” Tuchel said. “If you don’t do that then we have to be alert and aware of the counter-attacks and quality from Manchester United. We did this and defended very well. This was extraordinary effort and quality. We take it and go on.”
Werner’s improvement has been notable under Tuchel, while Kai Havertz has also been mooted as a possible option up front, but there is considerable distance left to travel between that duo’s current form and the end product of a top striker in a title-winning team.
Ultimately, that is where these two sides want to be. Bridging the growing gap to City at the summit has to be the main aim for Chelsea and United next season; beating Pep Guardiola & Co. to Haaland this summer would be a huge step toward that.