Alvaro Morata’s fine goal helped Chelsea secure a 1-0 win over Premier League title rivals Manchester United in an highly enteraining affair on Sunday.
The Spaniard, who hadn’t scored in six games in all competitions leading up to the clash at Stamford Bridge, headed in Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross in the 55th minute to ensure Chelsea recovered from their loss to Roma in midweek in fitting fashion as United were handed just their second loss of the league campaign on Jose Mourinho’s return to his former stomping ground.
The victory moves Chelsea to within one point of the Red Devils and third-placed Tottenham though they still trail leaders Manchester City, who beat Arsenal earlier in the day, by nine points.
Just days after Chelsea were humiliated 3-0 by Roma in the Champions League, Conte was expected to make some changes to his line-up for the visit of Mourinho and his United side.
But the omission of David Luiz from Conte’s matchday squad came as a surprise to many in spite of the defender’s shaky performance – along with the rest of the Chelsea defence – at the Stadio Olimpico.
Conte insisted the Brazilian’s absence from his squad was down to “tactical” reasons although the Chelsea manager didn’t change his formation on Sunday – only bringing in Andreas Christensen to replace Luiz, having Davide Zappacosta start on the right as N’Golo Kante made his return from injury.
And in what was a far cry from the poor start the Blues suffered in Rome, Chelsea looked bright against United, with the hosts forcing Phil Jones into putting the ball into the back of his own net in only the seventh minute.
United were let off the hook when the referee disallowed the goal for a foul on Jones by Alvaro Morata but Chelsea continued to threaten on the break and could have opened the scoring several times but saw Tiemoue Bakayoko twice miss the target as David De Gea made a superb reflex save to deny Eden Hazard.
Mourinho’s side, who had come into the clash having beaten Benfica 2-0 in the Champions League, also had opportunities to score but saw Marcus Rashford head over Thibaut Courtois’ bar before the Belgian made a fine stop to deny former Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku.
Seemingly keen to get on with the game after the break, Chelsea emerged first out of the two teams and the champions’ desire to find the opener and, indeed, put the horror show against Roma behind them was evident to see when Morata scored in the 55th minute.
Cesar Azpilicueta crossed the ball into the box from a deep position, which Morata brilliantly headed past De Gea to send Conte and the Chelsea fans wild.
The strike ended Morata’s six-game goalscoring drought and showed just how well the striker has linked up with his teammates this term – with the goal being the fifth time in the Premier League this term that Azpilicueta has created a goal for the Spaniard.
Mourinho reacted by hauling off Phil Jones and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial while Conte went on the defensive when he sent on Antonio Rudiger and Danny Drinkwater for Davide Zappacosta and Cesc Fabregas.
And Chelsea could have had a second but saw Bakayoko, who flourished going forward with Kante back in the side, shoot wide before De Gea once again denied Hazard.
Courtois was needed to keep out Fellaini’s last-gasp strike but Chelsea held on to secure a huge 1-0 win over United to cut the gap between themselves and second-placed United to just one point.