Manchester United’s Ivorian defender Eric Bailly hadn’t played a game of football since July or a competitive game since last April when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told him on Sunday that he’d be starting away to Chelsea on Monday night. Victor Lindelof, one of the usual central defenders, was ill and the Ivorian was considered ready. “It’s not easy when you don’t play for so long,” Bailly said after the match as he walked from the dressing room to the team coach. “But it only gets easier by playing games. I have been telling the manager that I want to play. I’ve been working hard and a bad, long, injury. I’ve been ready to play for a week and told the manager that. I took a few minutes to settle when the game started. I was nervous if I’m honest after so long away because it was almost a year when I was injured against Chelsea, but then things went OK. I felt the support from my teammates and my manager which is important.” Bailly, in the words of his boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was “extraordinary” as United defeated Chelsea 2-0, a surprise result but also the third consecutive win for United at Stamford Bridge. Victory only moved United up to seventh in the Premier League , but the gap between them and fourth place Chelsea is just three points and United have a superior goal difference with 12 games to play. Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw, Fred and others played well, but Solskjaer was most enthusiastic about Bailly who joined Jose Mourinho’s United from Villarreal in 2016. “Absolutely fantastic, heart of a lion,” added his manager. “His block from [Mateo] Kovacic is out of this world defending. Eric is a top player. It was his first game since we played against Chelsea in April. He is a top defender. He’s fast, he’s brave like a lion and it’s great to find him. Roy Keane: I gave fellow Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel a black eye in drunken Hong Kong brawl “We didn’t play particularly well with the ball, we were sometimes slow, but defensively, it was very good. Eric Bailly was remarkable for his first recovery match.” Playing at the back in a 3-4-1-2 formation to the right of Maguire, Bailly took the ball off Michy Batshuayi in his own area, dropped his shoulder, did a step over and took it away from danger in the first half. In the second, he made a last-ditch tackle to stop Kovacic from a sure shot on goal as Chelsea tried to get back in the game. His teammates looked incredulous that he’d managed to get across goal to make the challenge. Bailly could feel very satisfied with his first appearance back as his team picked up three much-needed points after a poor run – and another clean sheet too. Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs support to succeed “The system we played work for us,” he said. “We’ve been practising it all week and were comfortable with the formation. It works at the front too and Anthony [Martial’s] goal was very positive for him and the confidence of the team. “There were moments when it was difficult when I was injured,” he said of his operation on his right knee after an injury picked up in Shanghai during a preseason match against Spurs. “Every footballer knows that there will be stages when they are injured but you have to be as mentally strong as possible. I spend most of the time in England but I was in Barcelona a lot to see the doctor who made the operation.” Premier League clubs’ focus on China market means they’ll keep making missteps when it comes to morals While he was injured, United exercised an option to extend his contract until 2022. “A boost,” he said, “to know that the club has confidence with me. I want to repay that by playing regularly and not having the injuries I’ve had. I just want opportunities to play.” Bailly has started only 67 games in three and a half seasons, 37 of those in his first term in England. He started only 15 and 14 in subsequent terms, a combination of injuries and falling out of favour, but he sees a future at United, with his pace and speed an asset to the team. Bailly speaks in Spanish throughout the interview until he’s asked ‘So how is your English going?’ in English. “It’s getting better now,” he replies in English. “I’ve been here nearly four years but I want to keep learning to make my English better. Honestly, I’m happy here right now and there’s the right mood in the dressing room among a lot of the players. I think we will continue to improve.” Manchester United youngsters Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams leading the way for new class, says academy boss Nicky Butt United have been unable to find anything like the run of wins which they managed when Solskjaer took over. There have been several false dawns following encouraging results against better sides before the team have slumped against teams at the wrong end of the table like Watford, who recorded only their second win in 18 games against United in December. Watford are United’s next league opponents. Surely they can’t undo their impressive work yet again. If Bailly starts alongside Maguire, few fans will complain after his performance at Chelsea.