The victorious Liverpool players left the Old Trafford pitch on Saturday under attack from a barrage of celery stalks that were hurled down at them from the Chelsea support around the tunnel, leaving one corner of the stadium looking like an enormous salad. It seemed like one last absurd gesture of defiance, but then it was no less bizarre than what those Chelsea fans had witnessed from their team in this FA Cup semi-final.
Perhaps Jose Mourinho does not think that beating Liverpool five times in two years is good enough for his silent, unreadable Russian patriarch. The Chelsea manager, it would seem, wants to set even greater challenges for himself - like beating Rafael Benitez's side with one arm tied behind his back. Or, as it is otherwise known, with a team that has Paulo Ferreira as an adapted right midfielder.
There is a school of thought that the Portuguese full-back is not even good enough for Chelsea in his usual position, but on Saturday he found himself promoted to midfield ahead of all four of Mourinho's international wingers. Could there be, you had to wonder, a more depressing end to the season for Shaun Wright-Phillips (not even on the bench) than this? If it was an attempt by Mourinho to offer Liverpool hope then it worked perfectly - in terms of winning the match it was a disaster.
The point was made by Gary Lineker in the Match of the Day studio that, playing under Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, he felt sometimes that the Dutchman would change his team unnecessarily just to demonstrate his own cleverness. Perhaps Mourinho is showing symptoms of the same malaise. The Chelsea manager said afterwards he was at a loss to explain what he says is Joe Cole's current lack of form, but surely a player who has shone against Liverpool this season was worth chancing on Saturday.
It has become difficult to keep track of which of Mourinho's wingers are in favour with their manager and who has fallen out of preferment. On Saturday the answer was simple: he thought none of them was good enough. With Cole, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben on the bench Chelsea were neutralised, a tight, unimaginative midfield leaving Hernan Crespo and Didier Drogba stranded in attack.
As if to make the point about Chelsea's lack of width, Harry Kewell was the game's outstanding player in the early stages. He rampaged past Ferreira and Geremi on Chelsea's right and then turned his attention to the struggling Asier del Horno later on. How many more embarrassments does the Spanish left-back need before Mourinho writes him off for good? His half-time substitution was the surest bet in the stadium.
The introduction of Robben - and the return of Ferreira to left-back - was an admission that Mourinho had called his tactics wrong and while every manager, even him, is allowed their mistakes, this one required a lot of putting right. John Arne Riise gave Liverpool the lead on 21 minutes after a dubious free-kick awarded against John Terry. There were two short passes between Steven Gerrard and Riise and then a low shot through the end of Chelsea's wall and past Carlo Cudicini.
A goal up and this was still far from Liverpool at their very best, especially Gerrard, who had shown none of the adventure of Kewell on the opposite wing. Xabi Alonso was triumphing in the midfield over Frank Lampard but then the Spain international had so many more options in possession. Every time Lampard looked right he was confronted with a confused and unwilling Ferreira; to his left was Del Horno and the full-back had enough to worry about without getting forward.
It was a Liverpool game plan, Gerrard said, that worked "to perfection", although it was aided by the selection of Mourinho that made Kewell the only effective winger on the pitch. In the second half a substitute, Robben, gave Chelsea some of the width that they had lacked before an error by William Gallas on 53 minutes allowed Luis Garcia to lob the second over Cudicini and force Mourinho's hand once again.
Turning full circle, Mourinho introduced Duff and Cole after the hour. A game he had believed he could win with none of his wingers had become a battle against a two-goal deficit in which he deployed all three that he had available. When a goal was needed, it was Crespo who was substituted. Drogba had suffered the same fate when Chelsea's backs were pushed up against the wall by Barcelona in the Nou Camp last month. In the season's toughest moments Mourinho's belief in his strikers has wilted.
Chelsea's 70th-minute goal, from Drogba, came from an error from Riise that sent the ball back into the area and allowed the striker to head past Jose Reina. Chelsea's final scuffle to stay in the game was not pretty - a miss by Robben from close range on 74 minutes and Cole's skied shot in the final moments of injury time. Chelsea had an attack augmented by Terry and, eventually, Cudicini. Theirs was a formation that started off as obscure and finished just plain desperate.
The dispute that Mourinho initiated in the game's aftermath was unworthy of Chelsea, but it was not the only voice from the defeated camp. Cole was asked about the misfortune of certain decisions - especially the referee Graham Poll's award of a free-kick against Terry for Riise's goal.
"No, let's not go on about that," Cole replied. "A lot of the time you hear players moaning and miserable about referees' decisions. Let's just hold our hands up and say that Liverpool won the game."
There was a valuable lesson for Mourinho in that honest admission from a player he has built up and knocked down again more times than Cole would care to remember this season. Defeat for Chelsea does not even the tally between these two managers - over 10 games Mourinho leads 5-2 on wins - but as, Jamie Carragher pointed out, Liverpool have won "the most important one [last season's Champions' League semi-final ] and now the second most important one."
The Liverpool defender, outstanding yet again, said that the celery storm at the end was an unusual alternative to the "hamburgers and hotdogs" that normally get lobbed his way. "Maybe they have a bit more money down south," he wondered.
They certainly do have a lot more money at Chelsea, but it was not Roman Abramovich's wealth that settled matters on Saturday. It was the extraordinary decisions of his first lieutenant.
Goals: Riise (21) 0-1; Garcia (53) 0-2; Drogba (70) 1-2.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini; Geremi (Duff, 61), Terry, Gallas, Del Horno (Robben, 45); Ferreira, Lampard, Makelele, Essien; Drogba, Crespo (J Cole, 61). Substitutes not used: Cech (gk), Carvalho.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso, Kewell (Traoré, 77); Garcia (Morientes, 80); Crouch (Cissé, 69). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hamann.
Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).
Booked: Chelsea Drogba; Liverpool Carragher, Reina.
Man of the match: Hyypia.
Attendance: 64,479.Reuse content