Title fight over after just one punch

WELL, at least the build-up was exciting. Rarely has climax morphed into anti-climax as quickly and completely as it did at Old Trafford yesterday.

As heavyweight match-ups go, this was like one of those prize fights which, even as the patrons are still taking their seats, is decided by a killer punch seconds after the opening bell, although football requires that the man on the floor get back up again, even if it’s only to ship more punishment, for the full 15.

So it was for Chelsea yesterday who never really recovered from the shock of that Javier Hernandez goal after just 36 seconds. The second, from Nemanja Vidic, merely confirmed Manchester United’s near total command of the first half and, even when Frank Lampard stuck out a foot to grab an opportunistic goal in the second, it already felt much more like a consolation than a lifeline for Carlo Ancelotti’s shell-shocked team.

Which is not to say that this was a poor game; rather, that it hardly ever had the chance to develop the genuinely dramatic competitive edge which a putative title-decider demands.

Indeed had Wayne Rooney and, to a lesser extent, Hernandez, been as ruthlessly clinical in front of goal as we know they can be, this one could easily have turned into the procession which United’s halting march to the title has never threatened to be.

Until now.

Of course, United fans must be heartily sick of experts lining up to tell them that this is one of the weaker sides with which Alex Ferguson has attempted to scale the highest summits in England and Europe.

Yet, their indifferent form away from home and their failure to consistently dominate proceedings in the middle of the park, both argue the truth of the assertion that this is a Premiership title which looks like it will be won by a relatively ordinary United team when judged against the club’s own highest standards.

By extension, that analysis can only reflect negatively on the quality of the challenge this season, whether that was Chelsea blowing hot and cold, Arsenal choking or Man City failing to live up to their billing as England’s galacticos.

Yet, it would be churlish to deny United’s right to now stand on the brink of another domestic triumph, and yesterday’s performance offered further compelling evidence for the justice of their claim.

Sure, Hernandez’s coolness in a one on one with Petr Cech showed once again why he must be accounted the value for money buy of the season. And, embellishing proceedings with moments of real class, Ryan Giggs wonderfully tightened his stranglehold on the title of Grand Old Boy of English, if not indeed world, football. But it was the lesser lights who shone just as brightly yesterday, with Antonio Valencia giving Ashley Cole a torrid time down the right and Ji-Sung Park, though nominally played wide on the left, just about here, there and everywhere in an all-action display. In Park’s selfless 90 minutes were personified the attributes which have elevated this United team above the rest throughout this season: not the swaggering brilliance so synonymous with the finest hours in the club’s history, perhaps, but no less admirable qualities like hunger, commitment and sheer honesty of effort.

WHETHER those will be enough to even up the score against Barcelona at Wembley in the Champions League final is greatly to be doubted but, having seen off their biggest domestic rivals in such fashion yesterday, United now know that only one of the most improbable acts of self-destruction in league history can deny them that glorious 19th title.

Sadly, the collateral damage will probably take out Carlo Ancelotti, whose achievement in lifting his side up off their knees and back into the title race will hardly cut much ice with Roman Abramovich, especially given the way Chelsea’s reinvigorated challenge ended with not much more than a whimper yesterday.

It has taken all of 36 games to get this far and, in the end, it took only 36 seconds to effectively decide the decider.

It’s a funny old you-know-what.


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