LONDON: Samuel Eto’o’s first hat-trick in English football firmed up Chelsea’s bid to regain the Premier League crowd and left Manchester United fearing that even Champions League qualification will elude them for the first time in 14 years.
Chelsea won 3-1 ahead at Stamford Bridge and, though Javier Hernandez scored a late goal for United, the afternoon went from bad to worse when skipper Nemanja Vidic was sent off for felling Eden Hazard.
Injuries denied United the services of both Wayne Both Rooney (groin) and fellow striker Robin Van Persie (thigh). That left the striking field clear for Eto’o, preferred surprisingly by manager Jose Mourinho in place of Fernando Torres, to pounced in the 17th, 45th and 49th minutes.
Victory lifted Chelsea on to 49 points, two behind Arsenal and one behind Manchester City in the most dramatic and finely balanced title race for years. United, after controlling the first 20 minutes, were left in seventh place but, more significantly, 14 points behind leaders Arsenal and six off the fourth-place pace.
Chelsea’s ruthless display was a different class to performance to their colourless performance when the clubs met at Old Trafford back in August.
The early-season goalless draw between them had been one of the poorest ‘top table’ games of the season. It had come too early. David Moyes was still discovering all about the challenges of managing United and Mourinho wanted only not to lose.
Since then Chelsea had settled to the rebuilding task better than United. Not only do they have a stronger squad but Mourinho – redefined as The Happy One – knew much more about his players, their strengths and weaknesses. Moyes is finding, the longer the season goes on, more about the weaknesses in his squad.
United began brightly in the first 20 minutes. However Chelsea, in typical fashion, soaked up the pressure and took the lead with an effort from Samuel Eto’o which took a slight deflection off Michael Carrick. United chased an equaliser but Danny Welbeck squandered their best chance and was punished when Eto’o struck again from close range a minute before half-time.
The Cameroonian’s fourth and fifth league goals of the season richly rewarded Mourinho’s decision to prefer him to lead the line rather than Fernando Torres. The bonus for Eto’o was to complete his hat-trick in the 49th minute when Gary Cahill’s header from a right-wing corner was only blocked by keeper David De Gea.
Substitute Hernandez, on for the ineffective Ashley Young, pulled one back in the 78th minute before Vidic was sent off to bring United’s afternoon to a deeply troubled end.
** Emmanuel Adebayor maintained his own personal revival by scoring twice past Gerhard Tremmel in Tottenham’s 3-1 win at Swansea which pulled them up to fifth, trailing Liverpool only on goal difference. The Togo striker has scored six goals in eight games since Tim Sherwood replaced Andre Villas Boas as manager. Lewis Holtby stayed on the subs’ bench, Sherwood preferring Cristian Eriksson in the striker support role.