Manchester United bought beleaguered manager Louis van Gaal a measure of respite with an improved display in Monday’s 0-0 draw at home to under-performing Premier League champions Chelsea.
Van Gaal previously admitted that he was contemplating leaving Old Trafford after a wretched slump in form, but although his team have now gone eight games without victory in all competitions, they avoided sinking to five straight defeats for the first time since December 1936.
In a performance that may give United’s board reason to hope the Dutchman can steer the club out of their dip, the home side played with greater enterprise than of late and hit the woodwork through Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, but it was nonetheless their sixth 0-0 home draw of the season.
A defiant Van Gaal told BT Sport afterwards: “You’ve seen that the players are fighting for me. I am fully confident in the board and my players. There is no reason to resign.
“I thank my players for the performance. It gives a lot of hope for the fans.”
Chelsea also had their moments, though, and might have given Guus Hiddink the first win of his second spell as interim manager had David de Gea not saved smartly from John Terry, Pedro Rodriguez and Cesar Azpilicueta or Nemanja Matic not blazed over when clean through in the second half.
The result left Chelsea, unbeaten against United in nine encounters, three points above the relegation zone, while their opponents are now five points off the top four and nine points below leaders Arsenal in sixth place.
“On the one hand, I am happy with a point because we had a difficult game, but on the other, we had two big chances to get three points,” said Hiddink. “In general, I’m happy.”
With Van Gaal’s future uncertain, the spectre of Jose Mourinho, sacked by Chelsea 11 days ago, continues to haunt him.
Mourinho’s face and ‘Special One’ nickname adorned scarves in United’s colours sold outside Old Trafford by opportunistic stallholders, while his name was chanted by the away fans inside the ground.
Rested for the 2-0 defeat at Stoke City, Wayne Rooney was one of four players brought in by Van Gaal and the captain set the tone for the hosts in the first half with his confident probing and crisp passing.
Playing up front, with Martial exiled to the left, the England captain set up two early chances for Mata and Morgan Schneiderlin, the Spaniard slamming a shot against the bar, the Frenchman drilling wide.
In between, United goalkeeper De Gea produced a brilliant one-handed save after Terry met Willian’s right-wing corner with a bullet header.
But for most of the first half it was one-way traffic, Martial driving a shot against the left-hand post in the 17th minute after skinning Branislav Ivanovic.
Shortly before the half-hour, Rooney picked up a loose ball and took aim from 30 yards with a shot that was arrowing into the top-left corner until the flying Thibaut Courtois pushed it behind.
United’s level dropped as half-time approached and they survived a scare early in the second half when De Gea produced a fine double-save to thwart first Pedro, teed up by the impressive Eden Hazard, and then Azpilicueta.
The home side were soon back on the attack and it took a tremendous reflex stop from Courtois to prevent Ander Herrera tucking away Martial’s drilled left-wing cross.
United’s fans’ hearts leapt into their mouths again moments later, however, when from Pedro’s pass, Matic suddenly found himself bearing down on De Gea, only for the Serbian midfielder to hoist his shot into the crowd, unleashing a burst of mocking laughter around the stadium.
The final chance fell to Rooney, picked out at the back post by substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, but from inside the six-yard area the United number 10 volleyed well over.
Frustrated, Rooney planted his studs into Oscar’s calf shortly after and was lucky to escape with a booking.