Manchester City fans are no longer the only ones bemoaning their team’s meek capitulation in this season’s title race. On Sunday evening, their ranks, in this regard, would have been bolstered by two Premier League managers – one French, the other Portuguese. Ever since it had become apparent that Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea would have to scrap for the final two spots in next season’s Champions League, Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas could have been forgiven for viewing Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford as a daunting assignment which would probably result in the Blues’ dropping two or more points. But little did they know that City’s abject display in defending their title would lead to Manchester United wrapping up the championship a fortnight before Chelsea’s visit, meaning the game would be of little more than of academic interest to the hosts. United players duly proceeded to produce possibly their most listless performance of the season and were even matched in this regard by their opponents for long stretches of the game. However, in the end, Chelsea’s greater need for points shone through as Juan Mata’s deflected effort late on was enough to clinch all three points for the visitors and leave Messers Wenger and Villas-Boas cursing City.
Lineups & Tactics
Manchester United (4-5-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Anderson, Giggs; van Persie
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Luiz, Cole; Lampard, Ramirez; Moses, Oscar, Mata; Ba
With Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Phil Jones forming a three man central midfield, the United team had the look of a side looking to contain rather than attack. Nemanja Vidic was back to skipper the side for the first time since United’s visit to West Ham last month while veteran Ryan Giggs was chosen ahead of Nani to feature on the left wing. Robin van Persie, who scored a nerveless penalty against his former team Arsenal last weekend, was selected ahead of Wayne Rooney to lead the line on his own.
Rafa Benitez had a fine balancing act on his hand with Chelsea having played on Thursday night in Europa League semifinal and a pivotal fixture against Spurs lined up on Wednesday. Ultimately he made four changes to the team that started against Basel, with Ashley Cole, Mata, Oscar and Demba Ba reintroduced to the team. It meant that 34 year old Frank Lampard started his second game in four days in the heart of midfield and David Luiz dropping back to the centre of defense.
There probably has not been a duller and drearier display of football this season in the Premier League than what was on offer for the opening 45 minutes of this encounter. Neither set of players seemed willing to break out of first gear and clear cut chances were few and far between.
Oscar came closest to getting on the scoresheet when his low near post drive almost caught Lindegaard out with the Danish stopper just about managing to divert it to the post. United sorely lacked the composure of Michael Carrick with all three of their central midfielders guilty of conceding possession far too often. Chelsea were offered a decent chance to break the deadlock when Jones slipped over while in possession in his own half but finally when the ball was worked to Moses at the edge of the area, the Nigerian blasted his shot high over the crossbar.
For United, Cleverley, who was the most advanced of the midfield trio, had fired couple of shots from outside of the box but neither troubled Cech. The best piece of football in the half came when Giggs threaded a lovely pass through to van Persie whose first time effort drifted inches wide much to the agony of the Old Trafford crowd. United ended the half on the front foot with half chances for both van Persie and Giggs created from crosses into the box.
While it was hard to imagine a more vapid half of football than the first 45 minutes of this encounter, the early exchanges in the second half was not that much of an improvement in terms of entertainment. Chelsea thought they had a decent shout for a penalty when Giggs bundled Luiz over on the right hand edge of penalty box but replays revealed the infringement to have taken place just outside the box. Some rare enterprise by Anderson in the midfield then led to a United break but unfortunately Jones overhit his intended cross to van Persie when put clear on the right.
Mata then set up a chance for Lampard but the veteran midfielder, chasing after the record goal tally for Chelsea, skied his effort. By this time though Chelsea seemed to have taken control of the game as concerns of fatigue due to a congested fixture list proved to be unfounded. Benitez, sensing three points were within his team’s grasp, introduced Fernando Torres in search of a winner. His counterpart responded with a couple of changes of his own by bringing in Wayne Rooney to support van Persie upfront and Alexander Buttner to play in an unfamiliar left wing position. The second change though hinted more of getting the Dutch left back requisite number of league appearances to be eligible for a medal than anything tactical.
In spite of the changes, Chelsea continued to look the more threatening of the two teams as Mata came despairingly close to get his head to a fabulous cross from Lampard. Luiz then shot wayward from a free-kick in a central position 20 yards away from goal as the game entered its final ten minutes. Finally though Chelsea’s endeavour would pay off after Ramirez dispossessed Rooney near the Chelsea box and the team in blue was able to launch a lightning break into United’s half. The ball would eventually fall to Mata, who had intelligently created a pocket of space for himself towards the left of the box, and the Spaniard’s shot deflected of Jones to sneak into Lindegaard’s far post. While the goal would eventually be credited as an own goal, it was befitting that Mata, who was by far the most influential attacking player in the match, would have a pivotal role in the only goal of the match.
While in normal circumstances even five minutes plus injury time is considered to be more than sufficient for United to retrieve a losing situation at Old Trafford, one could feel that no last great push was forthcoming from the hosts on this occasion. The game though still had one significant piece of drama left. Rafael closed down Luiz near the Chelsea byline and inexplicably lashed out at his compatriot even after the ball had gone out of play. While Rafael’s cause was not helped by the reaction of Luiz and other Chelsea players, it still ranked as a moment of madness that invited trouble. After the ensuing melee was brought under control, referee Howard Webb brandished the red card to send Rafael off. The Brazilian full back became the first United player to be dismissed in league this campaign and with him went any outside chance of United snatching a late leveler.
From United’s perspective, it is fruitless to read much into the performance of the players in this game. From the outset, it was evident that the players were simply going through the motions and even Sir Alex rued ‘a lack of edge’ to their display. It seems the controversial exit from Champions League sucked the wind out of the sails of United’s season and from then onwards it has been the case of doing just the bare minimum. With no serious challenge posed by City in the title race, the title has been wrapped up without much fuss but the defeat to City in the derby and FA Cup exit at the hands of Chelsea would surely have rankled the supporters. Compared to those two reversals, this was a relatively less bitter pill to swallow and soon enough the memories of defeat in such an inconsequential match will pass into oblivion from the supporters’ minds.
For Chelsea and their interim manager, this is a different story altogether. After both Arsenal and Spurs had won on Saturday, it was imperative for Chelsea to follow suit in order to maintain their pole position in the Champions League qualification race. The fact that they achieved that at the home of the champions and became the first visiting team in more than three and a half years to keep a clean sheet in a league encounter at Old Trafford is a commendable feat indeed. With Chelsea enjoying a sizeable lead over Spurs in terms of goal difference, a win on Wednesday against the same opponents at Stamford Bridge will virtually assure them a top four berth with a six point lead with two games to play. The victory is another feather in the cap for Benitez, who yet again masterminded a triumph against his old foe Ferguson. While he may have faltered in mounting a serious title challenge since he took over, if he is able to guide Chelsea to a top four finish along with lifting the Europa League, there should not be a lack of suitors when he will be freed from his interim responsibilities in the summer.