Jose Mourinho was destined to have the last word.
In his first game at Stamford Bridge since being dismissed a second time as Chelsea manager, Mourinho watched his Manchester United side get mauled in an embarrassing 4-0 Premier League loss. His anger boiled over in a heated exchange with current Blues boss Antonio Conte, whom he took exception over the Italian’s animated goal celebrations along the touchline.
Then, when Mourinho returned to Southwest London last month for an FA Cup quarterfinal, the Special One became the target of taunts from the once-sycophantic Chelsea supporters with chants of “Judas!” and “You’re not special anymore!” He responded by holding up three fingers – for every Premier League title he won for Chelsea – later clarifying in his postgame press conference that “Judas is still No. 1” at the Bridge.
On Sunday, in the teams’ Premier League return fixture at Old Trafford, Mourinho got one more dig on his former club. Its possible meaning won’t be known until the domestic campaign’s final day.
Boldly benching a supposed fatigued Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho devised a game plan that would frustrate the Blues, most notably the perpetually irascible Diego Costa, and would render their attacking inspiration Eden Hazard invisible. The end product was a surprisingly thorough 2-0 victory, a result that not only delighted fans of Man United but also supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, the second-place team that’s been patiently waiting for this type of slip-up by Chelsea.
The Blues’ defeat kept their Premier League lead stuck at four points over Spurs, who kept the pressure on the leaders by steamrolling Bournemouth 4-0 at White Hart Lane on Saturday. The victory by the Red Devils ended an eight-game league winless streak against Chelsea, their longest such stretch ever against any Premier League side.
The Blues had sat atop the Premier League table since mid-November and enjoyed a 10-point cushion just four rounds ago. Now, with six games remaining, the sixth first-division title in Chelsea’s 112-year history is no longer an eventuality. It is legitimately in doubt.
“I think the team didn’t play very well, but not only one player or players,” Conte told NBC Sports after the game. “In this case, I think the fault is of the coach.”
Mourinho lauded his players for “doing an amazing job,” but whether he took great pleasure in dealing Chelsea a defeat that just might create enough doubt inside the heads of his former players to stumble even further, we don’t know. But he did proudly point to the United badge on his chest while walking off the field triumphantly.
Jose Mourinho tapping the Manchester United badge after the game. Tactical masterclass. pic.twitter.com/4BPBFMaHaA
— Premier League (@EPLBible) April 16, 2017
In addition to Mourinho’s surprise decision to sit Ibrahimovic – another indication that the manager is prioritizing the Europa League as United’s best means for gaining entry to next season’s Champions League – Chelsea had to make a last-minute lineup change itself when left wingback Marcos Alonso picked up an injury in warmups. Defender Cesar Azpilicueta took Alonso’s spot with Kurt Zouma getting the unexpected start in the back with Gary Cahill and David Luiz. However, it would be Luiz – solid all season as the anchor of the Blues’ back three – who would make the costly mistake.
After a Chelsea giveaway, Ander Herrera immediately dribbled upfield to initiate a quick counter (there was some debate as to whether he gained possession via a handball), and the Spaniard’s through ball caught Luiz napping and found Marcus Rashford in stride.
The teenage striker calmly took advantage of his one-on-one opportunity with goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (starting in place for an injured Thibaut Courtois) by placing his shot through the Bosnian’s legs and into the net to make it 1-0 United just seven minutes in.
With Costa more concerned about getting even with center backs Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo than scoring and Herrera harassing Hazard, the Red Devils enjoyed 59-percent possession in the first half, outshooting Chelsea 4-1 – the lone shot on target being Rashford’s goal. United would need just four minutes after halftime to add to its lead.
Ashley Young regained possession in the left corner after a poor Chelsea clearance and laid the ball off to Herrera, who hammered a strike that deflected off Zouma. The ball found its way past a helpless Begovic to give the Red Devils a 2-0 cushion.
Ibrahimovic did make a cameo appearance. He entered the game in the 83rd minute to replace Rashford, who was deservedly given a rousing ovation by the Old Trafford faithful.
A rough patch was bound to happen for Chelsea. It’s just happening during the most tense time of the season. But now, the outcome of the 2016-17 Premier League title race is as uncertain as ever, at least since mid-November when the Blues began to look imperious as ever. Their road to the championship no longer looks like a Sunday stroll.
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.