n a clash between two clubs who expect to challenge for the title every season, the question is: what will it take to see them rival Manchester City and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League?
Even after this 1-1 draw, there is little doubt that Chelsea are much closer to that target than Manchester United.
Thomas Tuchel claimed it was a case of cosmetic surgery needed for his team, rather than the open-heart variety Ralf Rangnick insists United require.
After watching Chelsea waste a host of chances in a dominant display last night, their manager insisted absentees, instead of errant finishing, had been the main reason for their failure to mount a sustained challenge at the top.
Tuchel claimed Reece James’s outstanding performance was evidence of the quality they lost when he was ruled out for two months with a hamstring injury at the start of the year.
On the opposite flank they have been without Ben Chilwell since November, following knee ligament damage.
Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante have missed long spells — and there is a case to say Romelu Lukaku’s season was wrecked by the impact of his ankle injury in October.
Tuchel has repeatedly highlighted the relatively injury-free campaigns City and Liverpool have enjoyed by comparison. While he is justified in pointing to the various occasions he has been without key players, there remain serious doubts about Chelsea’s ability to produce the kind of consistency that Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have instilled in their teams.
The sheer firepower they have at their disposal enables them to roll over the opposition in a manner Chelsea are yet to replicate on a regular basis.
Even at full strength, Tuchel’s side have been frustrated by too many teams who are willing to sit deep. Whereas City and Liverpool can kill by a thousand cuts, Chelsea can run out of ideas too quickly.
The lack of variation in their attacks can make them predictable — while their lack of a ruthless finisher can let opponents off the hook.
That was no better demonstrated than last night, when Kai Havertz missed a hat-trick of first-half chances and Chelsea managed just one goal from 21 attempts. Even then, it came courtesy of a defender, in Marcos Alonso.
United, meanwhile, created little, but were rescued by a moment of brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo. Had the Portuguese forward been wearing blue, Chelsea would have won handsomely.
“I think many players can look up to the quality and attitude of Ronaldo,” said Tuchel, when comparing the 37-year-old to Havertz.
The truth is the gap between Chelsea and the leading two is a combination of factors.
Injuries have undeniably cost them any chance of challenging, but they will forever be in the wake of City and Liverpool if they cannot solve an issue that has plagued Tuchel in his time in charge at Stamford Bridge.
Lukaku was supposed to be the answer — and perhaps he is the figure who marries Chelsea’s two biggest problems this term. His own injury has directly impacted his adaptation to a new club and a new league after two years in Italy.
Maybe a fully fit Lukaku would have settled quicker — and the ongoing debate about his suitability to Tuchel’s system would have been drowned out by the sheer number of goals he scored, as has been the case with Ronaldo at United.
There are still those who claim the Portuguese imbalances a squad that finished second last season. Yet, he has scored 23 goals this term, and eight of their last nine have been provided by him.
How Tuchel would like to have such problems.
Whether Lukaku will ever be the answer is debatable, but Tuchel will have to address his lack of cutting edge if he is to stand any chance of breaking the stronghold of City and Liverpool. A fully-fit squad would be a big help, too.