Gone in 30 seconds: United's flying start ends Chelsea dream
Manchester United 2 Chelsea 1
Sir Alex Ferguson stopped twice in front of the Stretford End on his way to the tunnel at the end of the game to offer his version of a genuflection to the supporters applauding his team off the pitch. It was a nice touch but, once again this season, and for the 12th time in his remarkable reign, Ferguson bows to no man.
Manchester United's record 19th title is just one point away; chances are they will seal it on Saturday afternoon in the early kick-off against Blackburn Rovers at roughly the same time Manchester City players are walking down the Wembley tunnel ahead of their FA Cup final. You imagine that Ferguson would not want it any other way.
This was the standout performance against top opposition that Ferguson had been looking for ever since Chelsea began their late-season revival with that victory over United at Old Trafford. Given what Carlo Ancelotti's team have been through in their mid-season slump, it was extraordinary that they should be in the title race with three games left but they were never truly in yesterday's match.
Not from the 37th second when, with his very first touch of the game, Javier Hernandez dispatched the ball past Petr Cech for United's first goal. Having made up 12 points on United with that 10-match unbeaten league run, Chelsea succumbed to exhaustion and mediocrity, just as the prospect of an unlikely championship defence came into focus.
Ancelotti's team were poor yesterday. They were two goals down within 23 minutes after Nemanja Vidic scored the second goal of a first half in which Branislav Ivanovic was shocking and David Luiz was not a great deal better. From his seat in the directors' box Arkady Abramovich, his father's representative at Old Trafford yesterday, smiled the wan smile of the distinctly unimpressed.
Not for the first time this season, Ryan Giggs ran the game for United from central midfield. He was given excellent support in two standout performances from Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-sung. Frank Lampard, who scored Chelsea's goal, attempted to rally his team-mates similarly but they were shot to bits and, by the end of the game, decidedly on the back foot.
United should have scored many more in the closing stages, when they peppered the Chelsea goal, not least Wayne Rooney. The United striker had some good moments but he was lucky to escape without a red card when he flicked a V-sign at the Chelsea supporters, having already been booked in the first half for a collision with Luiz.
Rooney was responding to a song in which he was he was repeatedly described in the coarsest possible terms. As he left the pitch following treatment, he responded and the footage might yet land him a Football Association charge. He gets more abuse than any other but he would be well-advised to avoid these traps.
Nevertheless, United were comfortably the dominant force in this game, even though Ancelotti did the sensible thing and dropped Fernando Torres to play 4-3-3. Not that it did him much good in the end. Salomon Kalou – who appeared to draw attention to his dissatisfaction at being left out in his response to scoring against Spurs the previous weekend – had the chance to score with a header in front of goal, just two minutes after United's second, but it was saved brilliantly by Edwin van der Sar.
Ancelotti was always likely to be sacked this summer whatever happened at Old Trafford, which made the evens offered by bookmakers yesterday quite appealing. For the first time in a while he looked despairing at the performance of some of his players – especially Luiz.
The Chelsea manager later conceded that he would have substituted 10 of his players at half-time if he had been allowed to do so. As usual, Ancelotti was gracious in conceding the title to United and praising Ferguson and, as usual, he pleaded complete ignorance when it came to the question of his future.
Looking at the Chelsea entourage in the directors' box yesterday, which included the chairman, Bruce Buck, and the chief executive, Ron Gourlay, it would be fair to say the person who probably has the best idea of Ancelotti's likely fate was young Arkady, not long out of his teens.
In the build-up to Hernandez's goal, Luiz had the chance to cut out Park's pass to the United striker but misjudged it catastrophically. As Ancelotti spread his arms on the touchline as if to demand an explanation, the Sky cameras picked up Luiz responding belligerently: "Not me." He did not come out for the second half and it was not hard to imagine that it may have been a little heated at the interval.
At half-time, the smart money was on Ivanovic to be substituted – having been booked for a crude trip on Rooney, he looked a liability. With every foul, Giggs was in the ear of Howard Webb, reminding the referee that he too was keeping track of the Chelsea right-back's crimes. Just before half-time, Ivanovic trod on Rooney's boot and was fortunate not to pick up another yellow card. It was the right decision.
It was telling that United were one goal ahead before a single Chelsea outfield player had touched the ball – with the exception of Luiz's botched block. The game was over before it even began for Chelsea. Of the three defeats they have suffered to United over the last two months, including the two in the Champions League quarter-finals, this was the worst.
The pass for the second goal came from Giggs on the left who, having won the ball back after a short corner, beat Kalou far too easily and crossed well. Vidic got across Ivanovic to head the ball in from close range. Lampard's goal on 68 minutes was from close range, after Ivanovic won a header down from substitute Ramires' cross.
In the closing stages, with Chelsea's belief and energy utterly sapped, Rooney and Hernandez might have had five goals between them. They knew it was over and the United players left the pitch to a sense of anticipation that when they are back here again it will be with the Premier League trophy.
Substitutes: Manchester United Evans (O'Shea, h-t), Smalling (Fabio, 88). Chelsea Ramires (Mikel, h-t), Alex (Luiz, h-t), Torres (Kalou, 61).
Booked: Manchester United Rooney, Giggs. Chelsea Ivanovic, Essien, Ramires, Torres.
Man of match Giggs. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Man United 46% Chelsea 54%.
Attempts on target: Man Utd 9 Chelsea 11.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire).
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