Chelsea’s record signing Romelu Lukaku has not scored a Premier League goal since September
Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea remain separated by just two points at the top of the Premier League after all three relied on penalties to win this weekend.
Manchester United also needed a spot-kick and a man-of-the-match performance from goalkeeper David de Gea to see off lowly Norwich before becoming the latest English club to be hit by a coronavirus outbreak.
At the other end of the table, Newcastle failed to take advantage of Leicester’s seven Covid absentees in a 4-0 thrashing by the Foxes, but the Magpies remain just three points off safety as none of the bottom eight in the table won.
The top three now enjoy an eight-point gap over the rest of the league and had fortune on their side to pull away from the pack even on a day where none of the title contenders hit top form.
City remain out in front thanks to two major decisions going their way in a 1-0 win over Wolves.
Raul Jimenez was sent off before half-time for two quickfire yellow cards, the first of which was extremely harsh.
Even then the 10 men held the champions at bay until Joao Moutinho was wrongly adjudged to have handled Bernardo Silva’s cross and VAR did not intervene to overturn referee Jon Moss’ original decision.
Steven Gerrard was also angered by refereeing calls as his return to Liverpool as Aston Villa manager ended in a 1-0 defeat.
Mohamed Salah’s penalty 23 minutes from time was just reward for the Reds’ dominance, but Villa had strong appeals for their own spot-kick waved away late on when Alisson Becker brought down Danny Ings.
Chelsea needed two penalties, the last of which came deep into stoppage time, to see off Leeds 3-2 to stop them dropping points for the fourth time in six league games.
“We needed this win desperately, for the belief, for the mood and for the atmosphere,” said Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel.
United were also grateful to Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty to beat bottom-of-the-table Norwich, but the performance left a lot to be desired for those hoping to see an instant improvement under interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
The Canaries were prevented from moving off the foot of the table by a string of outstanding saves from David de Gea as the Spaniard produced a miraculous stop to turn Teemu Pukki’s powerful drive over and twice denied Ozan Kabak late on.
Amid a desperately disappointing season for United, De Gea is enjoying a renaissance as he was often the only player to emerge with any credit from the final days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign.
“I’m feeling very good, very strong, very confident,” said De Gea, who lost his place to Dean Henderson for a spell of last season.
“The most important thing is helping the team with my experience.”
Despite an underwhelming start, back-to-back 1-0 wins for Rangnick have lifted United to within one point of the top four.
Victory at Brentford on Tuesday would take them into the Champions League places, as long as that match can go ahead after reports of multiple Covid cases in the United camp.
Chelsea just about got the three points they needed despite Tuchel leaving record signing Romelu Lukaku on the bench for all but the final three minutes.
Lukaku scored his first goal since September in a 3-3 draw with Zenit St Petersburg in midweek that cost the Blues top spot in their Champions League group.
The Belgian started his second spell at Stamford Bridge brightly after a £97 million move from Inter Milan with four goals in his first four games.
But his season was derailed by an ankle injury nearly two months ago, just days after Tuchel admitted the 28-year-old was suffering from physical and mental fatigue.
He returned to fitness two weeks ago, but has not started any of Chelsea’s last four league games and has failed to make any sort of impact when introduced off the bench.
Lukaku was signed to be the final piece of the jigsaw for a squad that were already Champions League winners.
If Chelsea are to keep pace with City and Liverpool they need him to refind the form he showed for Inter over the past two seasons to become one of the most feared strikers in Europe.
But he currently looks more like the player that struggled to match expectations during his two years at Manchester United.