Champions expose United's flaws with show of might in Manchester

Manchester United 1 - Chelsea 3
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The Independent Football

On the last home match of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson often likes to take the microphone on to the Old Trafford pitch and reach out to his people directly. He announces players' retirements, offers thanks to the fans and, most of all, expresses the desire of his team to continue their success the following season. But last night, the fooballManchester United manager was notable for his silence.

On the last home match of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson often likes to take the microphone on to the Old Trafford pitch and reach out to his people directly. He announces players' retirements, offers thanks to the fans and, most of all, expresses the desire of his team to continue their success the following season. But last night, the fooballManchester United manager was notable for his silence.

As the Old Trafford Tannoy man waited by the elbow of the Scot, you had to wonder what on earth the old godfather of English football would be able to say after a defeat like this. In the aftermath of a match in which his team had been picked apart by an under-strength Chelsea side, in a ground that had almost emptied by the final whistle, there was nothing to be said. Ferguson whispered in Roy Keane's ear and, in low-key style, United began a farewell lap of the pitch.

This was the saddest sign-off in Old Trafford's recent history. When Ferguson eventually came to talk about the match he marvelled at what he described as "the high level of football" and the thrill of being a "neutral" at a game like this. Unfortunately, for the vast part of the 67,842 crowd, their allegiances were far from neutral and it will have been the way the home team measured up to the new Premiership champions that alarmed them the most.

That Ferguson was not crestfallen, or as critical as he was after Saturday's draw with West Bromwich Albion, can only be because the fragile morale that exists at United does not need further damage before next week's FA Cup final against Arsenal. Chelsea have broken a few records of their own but the one that United lost was just as poignant. It was the first time in 103 Premiership games that they had taken the lead but ended up as the losers.

For Jose Mourinho, the season is complete and never has a game of so little palpable significance meant quite so much. Not only did his team break United's record of 92 points in a season last night, but they sacked one of the most important outposts of resistance in the Premiership in their relentless conquering tour of the country. And it was a victory achieved without John Terry who has finally opted for the toe operation that will rule him out of the rest of the season.

"Unbelievable," said Mourinho when asked to describe his team's performance, "and I don't like matches where there is no pressure to win." No pressure, but a record of three visits to Old Trafford in his career and not a single defeat yet. His team were slow to start, and fell behind to Ruud van Nistelrooy's early goal but, as Mourinho said, they "did not panic" and after equalising scarcely ever looked like they would allow control of the game to slip from their grip.

The pleasantries of United's "guard of honour" reception for Chelsea were reflected in a gracious reception for the champions from the home support and in the first few exchanges Ferguson's team were genuinely menacing. An early corner cleared to the edge of the box where Paul Scholes cracked in a shot that Robert Huth deflected straight to the feet of Wayne Rooney. He drove in a low ball across the goal that Van Nistelrooy forced home.

Without Terry, Didier Drogba, Damien Duff, Petr Cech and Arjen Robben this was not the Chelsea team that has plundered the Premiership, but, on 18 minutes, they were level.

Tiago collected the ball a generous 30 yards from goal and, with few other options, stroked a curling shot into the top right corner of Roy Carroll's goal. The United goalkeeper's failure to get a glove anywhere near it looked, at first glance, like poor judgment. A second viewing confirmed, however, that the midfielder had picked his spot perfectly.

The bewilderment that the cameras caught in Carroll's face suggested a man who feared for his FA Cup final place but that would be harsh. There were occasional hints at an equaliser ­ Van Nistelrooy was jockeyed away from goal by Ricardo Carvalho before the break and Darren Fletcher struck the bar after it ­ but the unfolding story at the other end was more pertinent.

The irony of Rio Ferdinand facing the same club which has been relentlessly cast as potential suitors was hard to avoid. But that he should have had enjoyed such an inauspicious performance against them will have been hard for United's support to accept. When Eidur Gudjohnsen broke through on to Tiago's through ball on 61 minutes, the United defence, Ferdinand included, failed to offer a token of resistance before the striker lifted an accomplished finish over Carroll.

Joe Cole was offside when he added the third after Lampard had got away from Gary Neville to cross on 83 minutes, but by then Chelsea's point had been well made. Ferguson can be an inspiring force when he addresses the proud, raucous community that comes together in this stadium to support its team, but last night even he realised that, at times like this, there is nothing left to say.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Ronaldo, Fletcher (Saha, 72), Keane, Rooney; Scholes; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Smith, O'Shea, Fortune.

Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cudicini; Geremi, Huth, Carvalho, Gallas; Makelele; Johnson (Jarosik, 72), Lampard, Tiago, Cole (Grant, 90); Gudjohnsen (Morais, 86). Substitutes not used: Cech (gk), Forssell.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

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