Another costly error from David de Gea dealt Manchester United’s chances of Champions League football a potentially fatal blow as Chelsea consolidated their place in the Premier League top four with a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
De Gea spilled Antonio Rudiger’s long-range effort to allow Marcos Alonso to equalise just before half-time and cancel out Juan Mata’s early opener.
A point halts a run of seven defeats in nine games for United, but does little for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men’s chances of overhauling Chelsea, who remain three points ahead of the Red Devils and with a superior goal difference.
Arsenal’s defeat by Leicester earlier on Sunday means Maurizio Sarri’s men move two points ahead of the Gunners with two games of the campaign to go.
Solskjaer made five changes from the side beaten comfortably by Manchester City in midweek.
However, it was the one the Norwegian did not make, and insisted he would not countenance, in dropping De Gea that came back to haunt him after a positive start from the hosts.
Romelu Lukaku was one of those recalled to the starting line-up and should have rewarded his manager inside five minutes with the opener as he got in behind the Chelsea defence, but allowed Kepa Arrizabalaga to narrow the angle and block.
Lukaku quickly made amends as United scored from open play for the first time in two minutes short of nine hours.
The Belgian’s lofted pass picked out the run of Luke Shaw from left-back and his cut-back found Mata to roll into an unguarded net against his former side.
Eric Bailly then headed inches wide from a corner as Chelsea seemed destined to complete a clean sweep of five defeats away to top six opposition this season.
However, they were given a lifeline two minutes before half-time as De Gea’s miserable run continued.
The Spaniard was at fault in heavy defeats recently at Barcelona and Everton, as well as for City’s two goals in midweek.
And his loss of confidence was evident as he spilled Rudiger’s speculative effort and Alonso reacted quicker than the United defence to turn home the rebound off the inside of the post.
– United lose belief –
That blow appeared to drain United’s belief after the break for what Solskjaer had termed a “must-win” for his side.
Both sides were hit by defensive injuries in a disjointed second half as Rudiger and Bailly hobbled off.
Bailly’s replacement Marcos Rojo came closest to grabbing a winner when his header was cleared off the line by Pedro Rodriguez in stoppage time.
Sarri claimed before the game that his side were “incapable” of playing for a draw, but they were happy to wind the clock down, knowing that wins in their remaining two games against Watford and Leicester will be enough to secure a return to the Champions League next season.
And they could have grabbed all three points with virtually the last kick of the game when the ineffective Gonzalo Higuain shot straight at De Gea from a narrow angle.