Man Utd, Chelsea show why title push is beyond them

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MANCHESTER, England — Managers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard were keen to take the positives after Manchester United and Chelsea played out a 0-0 draw, but for anyone hoping to find out if either club can take advantage of what looks like the most-open Premier League title race in years, there were few answers in the pouring rain at Old Trafford.

This could have been a day for United or Chelsea — third and fourth last season respectively — to put indifferent starts behind them and announce themselves as genuine contenders while other big clubs also stumble, but by its end, this encounter had only served as more evidence they remain works in progress.

United had the better chances and Chelsea probably should have had a penalty, but there was very little on show to scare the rest of the top flight.

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After an unpredictable start to the campaign that has already seen games in which champions Liverpool concede seven and Man City allow five, while Everton, Aston Villa,, Leeds and Crystal Palace race towards the top of the table, Solskjaer and Lampard should have title ambitions.

That both are playing down their chances says everything about where their teams are in terms of development. Ask them now whether they would take a top four finish come May and they would likely accept with glee.

“I think obviously there are two good teams out there and some quality defenders,” said Solskjaer. “All in all it was an even game but I felt if there was going to be a winner it was going to be us.”

Solskjaer also spoke about United’s week as a whole, with wins at Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain coming in the past seven days. It was, he argued, important to kick on after big results.

“The last time after we beat PSG [in 2019] we struggled big time. We lost to Arsenal, went 12 games without a win and probably didn’t deserve to win any. We got a point on the board against a good team.”

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Steve Nicol says Edinson Cavani’s experience will be a boost off the bench for Manchester United.

Lampard was similarly philosophical.

“It is clearly going to take time, no worries, it didn’t happen for us today,” the Chelsea boss said. “We got in nice areas but didn’t have the usual little spark. I will take the positives. At times we had control but not penetration.”

It would have been embarrassing for United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward if, at the end of a week in which he brushed off Chelsea’s summer transfer business as “an outlier,” one of Lampard’s new signings had proved the difference.

Fortunately for Woodward it was goalkeeper Edouard Mendy — a £21 million signing from Rennes — who was in the spotlight after making two good saves from Marcus Rashford, one in stoppage time, and another from Juan Mata. Still, the difference in the makeup of the two starting XIs was striking.

While Lampard showed off Chelsea’s £222m summer investment with five new recruits in his team and another on the bench, Solskjaer picked a team made up entirely of players who were at United last season, with Edinson Cavani and Donny van de Beek — as well as Paul Pogba — among the substitutes.

It is a mystery why Van de Beek cannot get into the team and he did not get off the bench here, but Cavani played the last 32 minutes and would have had a dream debut if, with his first touch, a clever flick from Bruno Fernandes’ low cross had not flashed the wrong side of the post.

“Cavani’s got clever movements, he’s an experienced centre-forward and the more we get the ball in and around the box to him the better,” Solskjaer said. “He’s been out for a little but he’s gonna give us a lot. He’s come in, had a great influence on the training ground already but we know he needs game-time to get his sharpness.”

At the other end, Chelsea managed just one shot on target and David de Gea did not have to make a meaningful save. The clean sheet pleased Solskjaer, particularly given his side conceded six against Tottenham when they last played at home; United also managed to avoid losing their first three home league games for the first time since 1930.

But at the other end, the home side could not score against a team that had conceded more league goals away from home than any other team since the start of last season and for whom this was just a second clean sheet in 22 league games away from Stamford Bridge.

“We didn’t create too many chances,” said Solskjaer, who asked his players to be more consistent ahead of the game. They were not beaten, but it is still the case that you do not know what you are going to get each time United line up.

Chelsea’s best chance should have come from the penalty spot in the first half, but VAR Stuart Attwell decided there was nothing wrong with Harry Maguire’s wrestling manoeuvre on Cesar Azpilicueta.

“I thought it was a clear penalty,” Lampard said. “It’s a hard call for the referee on the pitch. VAR was very quick to dismiss it. He should have asked the referee to look at the monitor and he would have seen the headlock.”

That the final whistle left both managers to talk about half chances and penalty appeals said everything about how the game had gone. Indeed, that neither was even asked about the title race, as open as it is, was just as damning.

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