MANCHESTER: Chelsea moved up to third in the Premier League by defeating champions-elect Manchester United 1-0 in a poor Premier League duel at Old Trafford.
Juan Mata scored the 87th-minute goal which enhanced Chelsea’s charges of finishing in the top four and qualifying for a return to the Champions League next season at the expense of either Arsenal or Tottenham.
United, badly out of form, finished with 10 men after Rafael was sent off in the last minutes of normal time for kicking David Luiz.
This was United’s third home league defeat and the first time they had failed to score at home in 67 matches since December 2009. The other unwanted statistic was that Rafael’s red card was United’s first of the season.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said: “We took our foot off the pedal in a big way. Chelsea deserved to win. We can’t complain. We didn’t play well enough.” Chelsea’s Rafa Benitez added: “It was a difficult game. For us now every game is massive now. We did really well. It will not be easy against Tottenham.”
** Ajax clinched the league title in Holland and Juventus the Serie A crown in Italy **
Blues’ fans had even been singing: “One team in Europe!” in the first half, taunting United with their own prospect of travelling to Amsterdam next week.
Victory over Benfica would be a fourth European trophy for Benitez. Not that Chelsea fans have much interest in their interim manager. They still cheer for his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo, and now have added more cheers for the prospect of Jose Mourinho returning to Stamford Bridge from Real Madrid this summer.
The alternative option for Mourinho is believed to be a new challenge altogether with Paris Saint-Germain and the possibility – probability even – of winning a league title in a fifth country (after Portugal with Porto, England with Chelsea, Italy with Internazionale and Spain with Madrid).
Other names on Chelsea’s target list have included Malaga’s Chilean Manuel Pellegrini – who has been brushing up on his English – Juventus’ Antonio Conte and Swansea’s Michael Laudrup. Several of these will also be in the frame if Manchester City decide to call time on Roberto Mancini.
If Mourinho were watching the Old Trafford duel he would have appreciated Chelsea’s energy and the contribution of his old favourite Frank Lampard, albeit Chelsea lacked creative imagination in the absence of Eden Hazard.
United created very little themselves until a late first-half flurry just before the interval.
With Wayne Rooney held back on the subs’ bench, Robin Van Persie was crowded out whenever he gained possession. Victor Moses at one end and Tom Cleverly at the other thumped their respective teams’ best early half-chances high over the crossbars.
The game struggled on through the second half until both managers tried to force the pace with the respective introductions of Rooney for United and Fernando Torres for Chelsea.
Juan Mata and David Luiz wasted Chelsea free kicks in good positions around the edge of the United penalty box but the Spaniard, best player on the pitch, finally shot home via a deflection off Phil Jones.
United were furious, having just claimed a free kick at the other end in vain after a tussle with Ramires. Their anger then boiled over, minutes after the goal, when Rafael kicked David Luiz and was sent off by referee Howard Webb.
With three rounds to go, Chelsea have 68 points, Arsenal 67 and Tottenham 65 . . . and Chelsea are home to Spurs on Wednesday.
** Jamie Carragher’s 30th and last Merseyside derby for Liverpool before retirement ended goalless. Everton’s chance of a first league win at Anfield in 10 years for manager David Moyes was denied when Sylvain Distin had a second-half ‘goal’ disallowed unluckily for a foul by Victor Anichebe on Pepe Reina.
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