Diego Costa’s 91st-minute equaliser earned Chelsea a more than warranted draw against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
After Jesse Lingard had put the visitors ahead – against the run of play, it must be said – with a sumptuous turn and hooked finish past Thibaut Courtois, Costa rolled the ball home in front of the Matthew Harding End to maintain Guus Hiddink’s unbeaten record.
Chelsea, however, will be counting the cost of this encounter, after Kurt Zouma was stretchered off following a horrific fall. The young Frenchman’s season could well be over, as well as any hopes of a call-up to his national side ahead of this summer’s European Championships.
Much of the talk before kick-off centred around Eden Hazard’s omission from the starting line-up as Hiddink named the same eleven that drew so placidly with Watford on Wednesday night – but despite a spell early on in the game where United briefly dominated, this was a much improved display by the champions.
But for the excellent David de Gea, Chelsea may well have come away with the spoils, but the Blues are equally indebted to Courtois for making several fine stops of his own as the London club stretched their unbeaten run to eleven games in league and cup.
The first chance of the match fell the way of the visitors, with Courtois splendidly turning aside a rasping drive from Anthony Martial, and that warning shot seemed to inspire the Chelsea players to up their game.
Having been second for much of the opening exchanges, the Blues responded when Nemanja Matic found de Gea in fine form, and went even closer when Branislav Ivanovic, Willian, and Costa all combined for the Spaniard to drive a shot across the face of goal and marginally wide of the far post.
Chelsea went even closer as Oscar – fresh from his hat-trick against MK Dons last weekend – was a stud’s length from converting a devilish low Willian cross, and there was a moment of controversy on the stroke of half-time as John Terry thought he’d won his side a penalty.
Having cut out a United counter-attack at one end and instigating a surge from the hosts, Terry found himself on the end of a fortuitous bounce, only for his volley to be blocked at source by Daley Blind’s arm.
Replays suggested that it was one of those that falls into the “50-50” category, with the ball hitting Blind at very close range. It would have been a harsh call on the Dutch defender, who admittedly did well to stop Terry from opening the scoring.
United opened the second half with a greater degree of intensity than their hosts, but with Wayne Rooney hopelessly floating a header over and Martial smashing wide when well-positioned, Louis van Gaal’s side did little to capitalise on their good moments.
They came close to breaking the deadlock when Courtois parried a Rooney curler and a powerful Lingard drive, but those United chances were coming from rare moments of United possession as Chelsea bossed the midfield.
The game seemed to turn when Zouma fell awkwardly after volleying away a dropping ball inside the centre circle. The Frenchman, after a substantial delay, was taken off on a stretcher and replaced by Gary Cahill.
Seeming to disrupt Chelsea’s rhythm, it came as no surprise when United took advantage of this psychological blow to the champions, as Lingard expertly found the top corner with a brilliant finish, only to be let down by a horrendous celebration that was mercifully stopped by Rooney.
After Courtois’ early heroics, de Gea took his turn in the limelight to produce fine saves from Ivanovic’s well-struck volley, and then from Fabregas, who almost caught his compatriot out at the near post with a blockbuster of a drive.
There was nothing that de Gea could do about a late Costa header, however, but unfortunately the former Atletico Madrid man couldn’t keep his effort down. That had stemmed from a free-kick won by Hazard, who had been busy since joining the fray earlier in the half.
But Chelsea – who, in the final fifteen minutes of the game, were able to boast more than 90% of the possession – were not to be denied a warranted leveller as Costa rounded de Gea to tap into an empty net, after Fabregas’ threaded through-ball was missed by Blind.
It might have been even more, but for more de Gea antics, this time the goalkeeper making a fine low stop to prevent Costa stealing victory for his side. Without the Spaniard and his Belgian counterpart, Courtois, it might have been 4-4 by that stage!
“It was a great response, we’ve shown that character since the manager came in and that’s good to see”, said skipper Terry after the game. That point helps Chelsea to thirty for the season, and just three points from the top half of the table.