Manchester United 0 Chelsea 1
Chelsea took a mighty stride towards a place in next season’s Champions League as Juan Mata’s deflected late winner earned victory over 10-man Manchester United.
The drabbest of affairs seemed certain to end in a goalless stalemate until Mata’s shot flicked off Phil Jones and crept in at the far post.
United thought they should have had a free-kick earlier in the move and their frustrations boiled over as Rafael was sent off in the final minute for chopping down David Luiz.
The result means victory for Chelsea against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday will seal a top-four spot thanks to their superior goal difference.
It was just about a deserved success, although it was not a game that will live long in the memory.
Although Unitd boss Alex Ferguson insisted there would be no slackening off even though the title was won a fortnight ago, it was hard not to notice a slackening in attitude from the hosts.
With Michael Carrick missing, they were forced to look to Ryan Giggs for some incisive passing and it took the veteran Welshman some time to find his range.
In the meantime, both Rafael and Jones burst into the box, only for Petr Cech’s massive frame to get in the way.
On the latter occasion, the ball broke to Tom Cleverley, who blazed over, just as Antonio Valencia had done in the opening stages.
Giggs eventually lofted a superb pass over the Chelsea defence for Robin van Persie to run onto.
The free-scoring Dutchman simply helped the ball on, only to nudge it wide.
Just before half-time, Giggs presented Van Persie with a better opportunity when he crossed from the left, only for Cech to again get in the way.
The end of season feel was rather at odds with Chelsea’s predicament.
Europa League finalists may be good for inerim manager Rafa Benitez’s CV, as Ferguson pointedly noted on Friday, but there is no absolute certainty they will be featuring in next season’s Champions League yet.
Wins yesterday for Arsenal and Tottenham turned the heat up on the Blues, yet, despite having the better of the contest, they rarely threatened Anders Lindegaard, who had been handed his first Premier League start since December.
Demba Ba put a couple of chances over, as did Victor Moses.
The nearest Chelsea went in the opening period was when Oscar was afforded far too much room to run at the United defence before sneaking a shot at goal with the outside of his right foot which Lindegaard did well to push onto the post.
Needing one more goal to equal Bobby Tambling’s club record of 202 Chelsea, Frank Lampard was hardly in the contest, and a long-range shot failing to test Lindegaard.
The early moments of the second period included a foul by Giggs on Luiz just outside the box that was not given, a woeful Jones cross that should have set up Van Persie and a booking for Nemanja Vidic after he pulled back Ba.
It all rather summed up the lack of fluidity from teams who had maybe become over familiar with themselves after four previous meetings this term, the first three of which produced an incredible 18 goals.
Mata belted a free-kick into the United wall and Valencia overhit a cross as Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres were introduced.
The deadlock should have been broken 15 minutes from time when Lampard picked out Mata with a sublime chip into the box.
But, unmarked, the Spain midfielder inexplicably failed to make any contact with his header and Rafael bundled away.
Branislav Ivanovic needed to make an important intervention to prevent Rafael’s low cross reaching Van Persie at the other end before Luiz sent a free-kick wide.
It was all rather humdrum until the final five minutes.
Rooney felt Ramires had fouled him on the edge of the Chelsea area to win possession in the first place, but once they countered, the visitors always had an extra man.
The ball was eventually ferried out to Mata, whose shot may have been creeping in, but definitely did after it flicked off Jones, bouncing in off the post.
United’s frustrations boiled over almost immediately as Rafael went through the back of Luiz by the corner flag, believing the Brazilian to have swung an elbow.
Giggs was incensed at Oscar for waving an imaginary card, but after the two sides had been separated, referee Howard Webb did just that, a red one that will mean a three-match ban and an early end to Rafael’s season.