THE Champions League was predictably booked, but the latest chapter of success in Erik ten Hag’s debut Manchester United season may have come at a cost last night as winger Antony was stretchered off in the first half with a bad ankle injury.
The Brazilian was injured in a challenge from Trevor Chalobah as his team secured the point necessary to guarantee a top-four finish and a place in next season’s premier European competition.
In years gone by, that was United’s birth right but, in the decade since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, it has become something of a touch and go occurrence - four out of the last nine post-Fergie years have seen the club fail to even qualify for it.
To the list of his already impressive achievements - EFL Cup win, FA Cup Final next month - ten Hag can now add returning United to the Champions League thanks to first half goals from Casemiro and Anthony Martial and efforts from Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford after the interval.
But if they are to win at Wembley for a second time this season, and end Manchester City’s quest for the treble, in the aforementioned FA Cup Final at the start of June, they may well have to do so without Antony.
Some might argue that is hardly a major inconvenience, given his return of four goals and two assists over the entire league season since his 100 million euro move from Ajax last summer.
And just before his injury, Antony was involved in United wasting a three-on-one break as his pass was slightly out of stride for Martial whose appalling first touch allowed Cesar Azpilicueta to tackle.
That has been symptomatic of much of Antony’s “nearly” season which has featured flashes of occasional brilliance but wild inconsistency in the end product.
That problem is for another day, however, and United can at least celebrate another step forward in the ten Hag era - one that has overcome some major obstacles in reaching its current high momentum.
Poor goal production has been one of the major problems, and was evident again tonight although such are Chelsea’s own individual and collective crises that United still had enough in the tank.
It helped that Casemiro opened the scoring after just six minutes, from a Christian Eriksen free-kick punted accurately from 40 yards. It found the midfielder perfectly, six yards from goal, as Casemiro out jumped Wesley Fofana and headed comfortably past Kepa Arrizabalaga.
But Chelsea, fielding their youngest ever Premier League starting XI as their miserable campaign winds down, had chances to level through Mykhaylo Mudryk and Kai Havertz before United stretched their lead.
In time added on for Antony’s injury, Raphael Varane found space behind the Chelsea back line again with a neat lob to Jadon Sancho whose well-timed pass reached Martial. He had endured an error-strewn first half, but this time the Frenchman kept his composure and slotted the ball in, ahead of Azpilicueta.
Moments before, Conor Gallagher had been guilty of the latest poor miss, rolling a great chance the wrong side of the post, as Chelsea still held onto a glimmer of hope.
But such has Chelsea’s season been - and especially that of Frank Lampard, who may yet see Everton, the club where he started this forgettable campaign, slump to relegation on Sunday.
That Chelsea fragility was on full display in a second half which opened with Fernandes thumping an early effort against the cross-bar, a taste for what was to come.
First, there was the false promise of a Chelsea recovery, with David de Gea forced to save well, if not spectacularly, from Mudryk, Lewis Hall and Mudryk again.
But on 71 minutes, Fernandes was tripped by Fofana and there was little doubt the Portuguese would be awarded the penalty from which he calmly shot United 3-0 ahead.
There followed a scuffle, with Enzo Fernandez at the centre of it and booked along with United full-back Tyrell Malacia, which smacked more of Chelsea petulance than any genuine desire to try and rescue an embarrassing situation.
And it was one that was about to get worse, seven minutes later, with Fofana’s latest error, a poorly-hit pass across the face of the Chelsea area which presented Fernandes with an easy interception.
His pass found Rashford whose initial effort was blocked by Kepa but rebounded for him to walk the ball into the empty net - a fitting symbol of United’s complete dominance before Joao Felix’s fine run and shot from the edge of the area produced an 89th minute consolation.
: De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 7, Varane 7, Lindelof 6, Shaw 6 (Malacia 45, 6); Casemiro 7, Eriksen 7 (Fred 70, 6); Antony 6 (Rashford 28, 7), Fernandes 9 (McTominay 85), Sancho 6; Martial 6 (Garnacho 70, 7). Substitutes (not used) Maguire, Dalot, Weghorst, Butland.
: Arrizabalaga 6; Azpilicueta 7, Chalobah 5, W Fofana 4, Hall 8; Chukwuemeka 7 (Loftus-Cheek 82), Fernandez 5, Gallagher 6 (D Fofana 82); Madueke 5 (Ziyech 82), Havertz 6 (Felix 64, 6), Mudryk 6 (Pulisic 64,5). Substitutes (not used) Silva, Mendy, Koulibaly, Gilchrist.
: S Attwell 7