LONDON — An unexpected but burgeoning title challenge for Manchester United has fallen apart in just a few weeks.
A 0-0 draw with Chelsea on Sunday was drab but consequential.
It was the fifth time United has been held in the nine Premier League matches since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side went top 47 days earlier.
No wonder Solskjaer downplayed the elevated status, even after the Jan. 12 victory over Burnley gave United a glimmer of hope of ending an eight-year title drought.
With only three wins since then, United has allowed Manchester City to take control — with City showing the attacking strength completely lacking in United's display at Stamford Bridge.
“We were both quite sort of safe,” United defender Luke Shaw said. “I don’t think we created too many chances. So a bit disappointed with that. We needed to win because obviously the gap’s getting bigger.”
United does remain second in the standings, but City has now been able to extend its lead to 12 points after beating West Ham on Saturday.
It is fourth-place West Ham in Chelsea's sights. Drawing a blank in a drab encounter against United kept Chelsea unbeaten in the two months under Thomas Tuchel but the west London club remained a point behind West Ham in the pursuit of Champions League qualification.
Man United wants to be achieving more than just top-four finishes but its record against the biggest six teams has been dismal. Not a single goal has been scored all season by United from open play in the league against City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and, of course, Chelsea.
“We are not scoring enough,” Solskjaer said. “The next step for this team is to win these games.”
United was left grumbling about the refereeing at Chelsea after not being awarded a penalty in the first half for what looked like handball by Callum Hudson-Odoi.
“I’m a bit concerned that we don’t get those penalties after the noises that were made a month or two ago about us getting penalties,” Solskjaer said. "So clearly there is a point of managers influencing the referees which they shouldn’t do.”
The manager even claimed a “cheeky” item on the Chelsea website was “influencing referees" which pointed to how United captain Harry Maguire had “survived VAR reviews” of fouls on their players in recent encounters.
“What they are saying about Harry Maguire puts pressure on the referees to give penalties against us," Solskjaer said, deflecting attention away from the ineffective attack featuring Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford.
Shaw went much further with an unverified claim about what referee Stuart Attwell told Maguire.
“I heard the ref say to H, ‘If I give a pen it’s going to cause a lot of talk after,’" Shaw said. “H was told it was a pen by VAR."
Three hours after the comments in an on-field television interview, United said Shaw misheard the comments. Shaw and Solskjaer could face action from the Football Association for undermining the integrity of the referee.
Tuchel pointed out that United striker Greenwood had actually handled the ball.
“You see this one second on the iPad and I see it on the field live,” Tuchel said. “I don’t understand why he needs to check it, but I’m glad it’s not a penalty because it would have been even worse.”
A game that ended with Christian Pulisic being deployed from the bench as Olivier Giroud's replacement to lead the attack offered little attacking quality.
“Now it is a moment to hang in and to show performances every three or four days which demands a lot,” Tuchel said.
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