Even Jose Mourinho, the man with a word or a gesture for every occasion, did not know where to look as Nemanja Vidic trudged in despair to the touchline after his red card in the closing stages of yet another Manchester United defeat.
The defending champions of England have become the embarrassing relative in the Premier League family; consistently letting themselves down on the big occasions, presiding over a shocking slide in standards and all of a sudden, the subject of pity rather than envy. Their rivals might even feel sorry for them if they were not so busy beating them.
Mourinho, a man given to mercilessly wringing out the last drop of advantage, did not bother to push Phil Dowd hard when it came to a foul worthy of a red card by Rafael Da Silva in the last few moments. All great generals have the knack of knowing when an opponent has been defeated and it certainly seemed that way with Mourinho, who was more disposed to sympathy towards United in his post-match press conference.
He threw some scraps United’s way: they had been the better team in the first 20 minutes of the game – that was true – and that Rafael’s reckless lunge at Gary Cahill was just a mark of frustration. There is no mileage in trying to psyche out a club that are 14 points off the top of the Premier League when he has much more serious rivals to contemplate.
This is where the United of 2014 currently rank in the concerns of the leading teams of the day. With four defeats in five in January, they are an after-thought. Mourinho delivered the bad news that the title race is now over for United with as much compassion as he could muster and a preface of “I am sure David won’t mind me saying ...” His logic was that while one of the top three could possibly blow up, not all of them would.
It was left to David Moyes to put a brave face on it all and talk about the scope of the “challenge” facing United. He blamed defeat on the “terrible defending” for the two set-pieces that led to the second and third goals of the hat-trick for Samuel Eto’o. But it is easier to reduce defeats like these to the details – the runner not tracked, the tackle missed – and ignore the bigger picture.
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 1 in pictures
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 1 in pictures
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Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (left) watches from the stands alongside pop star Mick Hucknall
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Chelsea striker Samuel Eto'o celebrates his hat-trick in the Premier League match against Manchester United
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Chelsea's Ramires battles Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj for the ball
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Samuel Eto'o escapes the attentions of Manchester United defender Phil Jones during the match at Stamford Bridge
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Chelsea's Gary Cahill celebrates his side's second goal after his cross set up Samuel Eto'o
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Samuel Eto'o beats Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea to put Chelsea 2-0 up
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Chelsea defender David Luiz and Manchester United midfielder Phil Jones contest a header
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Manchester United defender Patrice Evra unleashes a thunderous shot
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Samuel Eto'o celebrates giving Chelsea the lead as a downcast Michael Carrick looks on
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Chelsea midfielder Willian bursts down the wing with Phil Jones in hot pursuit
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Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic beats Willian in an aerial battle
That picture is that once the effort of the opening stages was expended by United they never looked like finding a way back in. Without Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie there is not that critical force which will place an opponent of the calibre of Chelsea under the kind of pressure that can break them. United pulled one back through the substitute Javier Hernandez but what they had was never going to be enough.
There were some good performances in the United team, from Danny Welbeck and Adnan Januzaj. Unfortunately for United, these are interesting little guitar solos compared to the might and discipline of Mourinho’s orchestra. This Chelsea team has the nous to dig in when the pressure is on, and the awareness to exploit the weaknesses of an opponent when the opportunity arises.
It was a great afternoon for Eto’o on the occasion of Mourinho’s 100th career Premier League win. His first goal came after an innocuous header away by Jonny Evans. On the right side, Eto’o seemed unsure where to go at first but when Phil Jones bought his dummy so easily he headed for goal and got a shot off as Michael Carrick came over to cover. The ball flicked up off the United midfielder and beat David De Gea at his far post.
Carrick had been one of the prime movers in a positive start for United. It was his ball out left to Ashley Young that created a chance within two minutes. Young exchanged passes with Welbeck on the left side of the area but, with a sight of goal, he could not get the ball past Petr Cech.
In those early stages United looked like a team responding to the demands of their manager to take charge of the game. Carrick stroked the ball around in the centre of midfield, Januzaj would later tie David Luiz up in knots and then slot the ball perfectly across the penalty area where, typically for United, no-one was waiting.
There was more misfortune later in the first half for United when Cesar Azpilicueta took away Welbeck’s standing foot as the forward was in the act of shooting. To Welbeck’s credit he managed to get a shot away and Moyes said later that a penalty on that occasion would have been “soft”.
The second Chelsea goal just before half-time was the first of those abject defensive episodes. Welbeck’s clearance from a corner fell to Ramires who pushed the ball out to Gary Cahill on the right and his cross was turned in relatively easily by Eto’o. The cameras picked out Rafael’s meander away from the left side he should have been defending, but in truth the whole United defence was woefully ineffective.
At that point it became critical for Moyes. Four minutes after half-time, Cahill won a header unopposed which De Gea just about saved with his elbow. With Valencia preoccupied with trying to wrestle Eto’o out of contention, the Chelsea striker prodded the ball into the goal.
The afternoon had begun with United fans baiting Mourinho over missing out on succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson; to which he responded with a cursory wave. By the end it was all about Moyes and the Chelsea fans who sang “we want you to stay”. As his team regrouped after the third goal they looked crushed. Patrice Evra hobbled off. The game was up.
Mourinho later acknowledged that United fought back bravely. Hernandez poked in Jones’ shot after excellent work from Welbeck. There was tiredness in Chelsea’s legs and Mourinho opted to send on the giant Nemanja Matic to shore up a five-man midfield. In the meantime, Fernando Torres, another substitute, sustained a knee ligament injury that could rule him out for a month.
The red card for Vidic for his tackle on Eden Hazard in the closing stages and Rafael’s subsequent rush of blood just added to the theme of raggedness about United. They need Rooney and Van Persie back as soon as possible but when it comes to making good, that really is only the start.
Chelsea: (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Ramires, Luiz; Willian (Matic, 85), Oscar (Mikel, 68), Hazard; Eto’o (Torres, 79).
Substitutes not used: Schwarzer (gk), Cole, Lampard, Mata.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; R Da Silva, Vidic, Evans, Evra (Smalling, 51); Valencia, Carrick, Jones, Young (Hernandez, 56); Januzaj; Welbeck.
Substitutes not used: Lindegaard (gk), Giggs, Cleverley, Fletcher, Kagawa.
Referee: P Dowd
Booked: Manchester United Young
Sent off: Vidic
Man of the match: Eto’o