Faint flicker of hope for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United against Chelsea

A goalless draw at Old Trafford last night does neither Manchester United nor Chelsea any favours, but Van Gaal’s men show signs of fight, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney had a day to forget in front of goal, spurning at least two clear chances for Manchester United against Chelsea. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters
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Manchester United 0

Chelsea 0

Man of the match Anthony Martial (Manchester United)

MANCHESTER // If this was Louis van Gaal’s last stand, the scoreline lends itself to the suggestion that it was a fitting farewell.

He has become indelibly associated with 0-0 draws and this was Manchester United's seventh of the season. Yet it was a stalemate with a difference, and not just because Chelsea were the opponents and Van Gaal's old adversary Guus Hiddink was in the other dugout.

It was a goalless game where United nonetheless showed signs of life. If they had played with such verve more often, Van Gaal’s position would not be in peril. It was not enough to pronounce that a recovery is underway, but not was it a performance that will compel the board to wield the axe.

Read more: Andy Mitten on Manchester United supporters strengthening their faith in dark times

Perhaps their hand would have been forced if Nemanja Matic, sent clear by Pedro and in acres of space after United were caught on the counter-attack, had scored a winner. Instead, the Serb blazed over and, rather than turning on Van Gaal, the crowd mocked the Serb.

There was a banner calling for Van Gaal’s departure but little other dissent amid a rousing atmosphere. Those United fans who bought scarves with Jose Mourinho’s image on them may be getting ahead of themselves. The Portuguese’s name was chorused at Old Trafford, but only by the Chelsea supporters.

His interim successor, Hiddink, has now drawn both games in charge. This could easily have been a maiden defeat. Chelsea were spared that fate, partly by Thibaut Courtois, who made a remarkable point-blank block from Ander Herrera’s shot after Anthony Martial seemed to tee the Spaniard up for a certain goal. Referee Martin Atkinson, who rejected two penalty appeals, and the woodwork also preserved parity before Wayne Rooney volleyed the last fine chance into the Stretford End.

Yet the near misses were signs United were the more ambitious. They had urgency, a quality they have often lacked. The recalled Rooney was a busy striker. Their full-backs launched a series of raids. They passed the ball forward. They attempted shots. In short, they did everything they have not been doing. It was a reminder of what United used to be and what they could be.

Martial tormented Branislav Ivanovic, showcasing his vast potential. Ashley Young exerted an influence at both ends. Morgan Schneiderlin, belatedly restored, brought bite. Each, with his excellence, underlined United’s underachievement of late.

They looked liberated, in the way Chelsea seemed after Mourinho’s sacking, yet with the difference that Van Gaal remains in his post. There was nonetheless a shift in attitude: United cast off the caution and stopped passing sideways.

Their problem was that a bright start did not produce a breakthrough. They continued to threaten, but they could not sustain the pressure throughout. They are a team who require an early goal, but rarely score one.

At least they came close. Mata, exiled from Chelsea by Mourinho, struck his former employers’ bar with a rasping, rising shot. Martial was denied by the post, clipping the inside of the upright after veering infield. Schneiderlin had already fizzed a shot wide. United, for once, had begun with attacking intent.

While David de Gea surpassed himself to tip John Terry’s diving header over the bar, Chelsea were on the back foot. Minus a specialist striker, with Diego Costa suspended and Loic Remy injured, Hiddink used Eden Hazard as a false nine. He was subjected to a series of heavy challenges and his Chelsea goal drought will reach at least 245 days.

Not for the first time, United could be grateful to De Gea. The goalkeeper made a wonderful double stop from two fellow Spaniards, Pedro and Azpilicueta, with the first saving Van Gaal particular embarrassment. He had pursued Pedro but permitted Chelsea to sign the winger from Barcelona. They have floundered since.

Yet while sides who stand sixth and 14th are shadows of their predecessors, they remain the role models in one position. Each has an outstanding goalkeeper. Rather than Van Gaal’s tactics, they were reasons for the score.

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