Mata moves Chelsea back into third at Old Trafford

United’s Rafael sent off after kicking out at David Luiz in the dying minutes

Chelsea’s Juan Mata celebrates scoring the winnier. Photograph: Martin  Rickett/PA Wire

Chelsea’s Juan Mata celebrates scoring the winnier. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

 

Manchester United 0 Chelsea 1: There’s only one team in Europe, the Chelsea fans reminded their Manchester United counterparts throughout this game, proving that even the much-maligned Europa League has its uses. It is still Champions League qualification that matters most, however, especially with a new manager to recruit, and three points from one of Old Trafford’s tamer afternoons courtesy of a late but deserved winner returned Chelsea to third place ahead of Wednesday’s showdown against Spurs at Stamford Bridge.

Rafa Benítez will be keen to have Eden Hazard back for that game. The Belgian failed a late fitness test on a calf strain in Manchester and his creativity was missed. Even without him Chelsea managed to be more creative than United, though until Oscar found Juan Mata with a splendid pass four minutes from time, leading to Phil Jones’s own goal, it appeared neither side would be creative or committed enough to deserve all three points.

Chelsea showed marginally the more enterprise in a disappointingly tepid first half, with Mata picking out Demba Ba with crosses on a couple of occasions, Victor Moses shooting too high with a decent chance and Oscar almost catching the home defence out with a run and a low shot that Anders Lindegaard could only touch on to a post. United waited until the stroke of the interval to get Robin van Persie on to the end of anything, though once they managed to find him he was unlucky not to put his side in front. An instinctive first touch to a terrific through ball from Ryan Giggs surprised Petr Cech but curled just the wrong side of a post, then when Nemanja Vidic, of all people, supplied an inviting cross from the left Van Persie met it well only to see his header fly straight into the goalkeeper’s arms.

United’s only other chance to take an interval lead came when Cech parried a cross straight to Tom Cleverley on the edge of the area, yet with a better opportunity than he possibly realised the fringe player lacked the composure to take advantage, shooting early and blazing high over the bar.

Chelsea might have had a penalty at the start of the second half when Giggs hauled down David Luiz as he entered the area. Howard Webb waved away their claims, which seemed reasonable as the offence seemed to originate outside the box, though it appeared overly generous of the referee not even to award a free-kick.

Despite the introductions of Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres, the game was petering out feebly in the second half, with United happy enough to settle for a second successive draw. Chelsea’s lack of urgency was harder to understand, though it turned out they were merely biding their time. The build-up to the goal began on the edge of their own penalty area, with Ramires cleanly dispossessing Rooney, then as the ball was worked smoothly upfield United made the mistake of leaving Mata unmarked in the box.

Oscar spotted him and supplied him, and a low shot beat Lindegaard’s despairing dive to creep in off the far post after being deflected by Jones.

Any hope United had of answering back disappeared with the hot-tempered Rafael when the full-back was dismissed for kicking out at David Luiz.

While Alex Ferguson did not look best pleased, this was another stealthy but significant victory for Benítez.