Manchester United 5
Chelsea were left with delusions of competency yesterday after Manchester United knocked them out of the FA Cup in an extraordinary third-round tie at Stamford Bridge.
With 12 minutes left, they were 5-0 down and heading for the most inglorious defence of the old pot in 126 years before a late flurry of goals dressed a slaughter up as a contest.
In reality it was an exhibition, a showcase of the champions' footballing arts and desire, the twin pillars of their success. Driven on by Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs they blew Chelsea apart like a newspaper in the wind. Between the 23rd and 74th minutes David Beckham and Andy Cole scored a brace apiece and Teddy Sheringham once. Chelsea's belated response, a wonderful goal by Graeme Le Saux and two from Gianluca Vialli, restored a measure of pride but could not disguise United's superiority. They were awesome.
"People say our priority is the European Cup and the League and that's true," said Alex Ferguson, "but on a day like this the players' natural instincts take over. They want to win."
In the next round United will play Walsall or Peterborough. Even if it were Walsall and Peterborough, all 22 players at once, they would be firm favourites.
But maybe that tie will be tougher. United are always hungry but this match, against the glamour-boy capital pretenders, who boasted a decent recent record against United, generated an extra buzz in their limbs.
Roy Keane apart, United were at full strength. For Chelsea Ruud Gullit, seeking to inject the midfield devil missing in the absence of Dennis Wise (suspended) and Gustavo Poyet (injured) played Mark Hughes at the apex of a diamond midfield.
This pitted him against Butt, a callow youth teamer when Hughes was Old Trafford's raging bull. Did the prospect intimidate Butt? Not a bit. Hughes, captain and newly honoured, was matched for muscle and out-manouvered in wit. Booked after 21 minutes, he was close to having his MBE rechristened Mad Bull Exits.
Alongside Butt who, said Ferguson, "showed great courage in his tackles", was a rampant Giggs. He is 24, wealthy and handsome with four championship and two FA Cup winners' medals. He is blessed with enough pace, trickery and guile to be one of the outstanding forward players in Europe. Yet from the moment he eyeballed Dan Petrescu after a second-minute lunge by the Romanian to the final whistle, he never rested and made almost as many tackles on Steve Clarke and Michael Duberry as they did on him.
Twice in the first five minutes he almost created a goal. From his corner Petrescu cleared Ronny Johnsen's header off the line then Cole ran onto his pass before drawing a good save from Ed de Goey. Paul Scholes, released by Sheringham, then surprisingly dragged his shot wide before Cole's pace and movement, and Giggs' eye for a pass, finally earned United reward.
Unable to shoot after beating Franck Lebouef, Cole chipped back across goal, Sheringham flicked on and Beckham tapped in. Six minutes later Mark Nicholls brought Giggs down and Beckham curled the free-kick around the wall and through the slow-moving De Goey's arms.
Chelsea had so far offered only a wayward Tore Andre Flo header from Gianfranco Zola's free-kick but they briefly rallied, with Peter Schmeichel denying Nicholls and Petrescu heading Le Saux's cross over before United struck again. Lebouef's pass was cut out by Gary Pallister and Giggs found Cole, unforgivably unmarked, on the half-way line. He sped away to chip over De Goey.
Chelsea re-organised at the break, Le Saux, their best attacker, moving into midfield and Hughes into attack. Vialli, however, remained on the bench for another 16 minutes.
They had their moments with Schmeichel denying Duberry and Zola and Le Saux hitting an upright in one scramble. But, after 66 minutes, Cole got between Lebouef and Duberry again, Giggs picked him out and the hottest striker in the country scored his 17th goal in 16 games. He must surely start for England against Chile next month.
Eight minutes later Beckham received Giggs' corner and picked out Sheringham. That made it 5-0 and the home support streamed away. Those that stayed were rewarded by Le Saux's exquisite chip, a great but belated save by De Goey from a Beckham free-kick, and two pieces of quick thinking and good finishing by Vialli. It made for a lively finish, but there was never enough time to gain a draw, nor did Chelsea deserve one.
"We were careless towards the end but it was a good performance," said Ferguson. "The players were ready for it, they were focussed. Maybe last week's defeat at Coventry was a blessing in disguise. They were slipshod then and got what they deserved." In a similar vein he added: "Maybe it was not so bad to concede those goals, it will stop them from getting carried away."
Gullit's reflections appeared to have more to do with lifting his team for Wednesday's Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final at Ipswich than realistically assessing the match. "Too many players were under-level in the first half but we showed in the second half we can cope with them easily," he said. "It was really only 2-0."
One trusts Gullit does not believe this but he was not the only one playing word games. "It is a long season and I think we will get better," said Ferguson. The worry for everyone else is that he could be right.
Goals: Beckham (23) 0-1; Beckham (29) 0-2; Cole (45) 0-3; Cole (66) 0- 4; Sheringham (74) 0-5; Le Saux (78) 1-5; Vialli (83) 2-5; Vialli (87) 3-5.
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Clarke, Duberry, Lebouef, Le Saux; Petrescu, Di Matteo, M Hughes, Nicholls (Myers, h-t); Zola, Flo (Vialli, 61). Substitutes not used: Lambourde, P Hughes, Hitchcock (gk).
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes (Solskjaer, 72), Butt, Giggs; Cole, Sheringham. Substitutes not used: Clegg, McClair, Berg, Pilkington (gk).
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
Bookings: Chelsea: Hughes, Nicholls, Di Matteo, Lebouef, Le Saux. Manchester Utd: Irwin, Scholes, Sheringham.
Man of the match: Giggs.