Defeat comes in varying degrees, but however Sir Alex Ferguson looked at the one his Manchester United suffered here last night he could not avoid a sickening conclusion.
This was a big one; this was the one that was like a punch which when it comes makes you feel you might have been broken apart. Then when you find this isn't so, you worry that the effect will linger too long, that you may never get back all of that old self-belief.
What made it worse for Ferguson, as Damien Duff's late free-kick was reacted to with absurd passivity by a hugely expensive defence, was that it was a defeat which had been long trailed in another season of torment for the man who once believed that he had all of English football in his pocket.
Indeed, it might have been the one that told him that Jose Mourinho, and the Russian oil millions at his command, had turned a threat into a formal claim on the old empire.
Chelsea's victory carried them into the Carling Cup final against Liverpool on 27 February at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff but that, surely, was the least of their reward. Do Mourinho and Roman Abramovich know where Cardiff is, do they care? Probably not. But they have always known that Manchester United was the football power in England that sooner or late had to be eclipsed. Yes, Arsenal had a brilliant, unbeaten season but did their financial power and their international brand name truly pose a long-term threat to the Chelsea expansion? Hardly. United were the club that had to be undermined and passed and last night we may just have seen the first, pulverising stride in that direction.
Before the game Ferguson said you could read too much into a football mind game. No doubt that is true. But the trouble is this wasn't a mind game. It was something entirely more basic. It was a war game and, though United were buoyed by the looping strike of veteran Ryan Giggs over the head of arguably Europe's best goalkeeper, Peter Cech, in the second half, they never matched Chelsea in their control and their fluency.
In a few short months Mourinho has imposed a stunning certainty on the play of his squad. As he did at Porto, he has built from the most fundamental instinct of a winning football coach. He has made his defence sound. He has two goalkeepers of high quality while United and this was another source of deep pain for Ferguson last night lack one. Most damning of all, was the inescapable conclusion that if some of the play, particularly after Giggs' intervention, was waged ferociously, it was hard to imagine that Chelsea would have conceded either of the goals that brought down United.
Frank Lampard was given a free run into the box after Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba worked briskly along the left; when Duff's killer free-kick went in United were lifeless. By comparison, John Terry was again a controlling force in the Chelsea defence. Duff and Robben gave width and pace, Claude Makelele was as combative as in some of his best days in Madrid while Roy Keane again at times showed the odd hint of a perhaps cumulative competitive weariness and never was there a sense that Chelsea might lose sight of their priorities.
Mourinho, naturally, was generous in victory. He talked about the spirit of United, the evenness of the game and the tremendous atmosphere in Old Trafford. He had also brought along one of Portugal's finest reds after being stung by Ferguson's claim that the glass offered to him at Stamford Bridge after the first leg was almost unspeakably bad. Mourinho could afford to be generous.
Ferguson had announced that Chelsea's idea of winning all four available trophies was impossible and that he would stick to his own selection policies as long as he was involved in the least prestigious of them. But then he drew Chelsea and sent out his strongest troops. Maybe the war isn't over, maybe this was a side-show in a minor theatre of action, but it didn't feel like that walking away last night. It felt like the end of a whole era of English football.
- More about:
- Cardiff City Fc
- Chelsea F.c.
- Frank Lampard
- Jose Mourinho
- Premier League
- Real Madrid
- Ryan Giggs
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Stamford Bridge
- The Carling Cup