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Chelsea took a mighty stride towards a place in next season's UEFA Champions League as Juan Mata's deflected late winner earned victory over 10-man Manchester United.
A hard-fought affair seemed certain to end in a goalless stalemate until Mata's 87th-minute shot flicked off Phil Jones and crept in at the far post.
Man United’s frustrations subsequently boiled over as Rafael was sent off in the final minute for chopping down David Luiz.
The result means victory for Chelsea against Tottenham Hotspur 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 with Michael Carrick missing, United 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 penalty area, 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 and the free-scoring Dutchman 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.
Victories on Saturday 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 Barclays Premier League start since December.
Demba Ba put a couple of chances over, as did Victor Moses, but the nearest Chelsea came 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.
There was a curious 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 might have been broken 15 minutes from time when Frank Lampard picked out Mata with a sublime chip into the box. But, unmarked, the Spain midfielder failed to make any contact with his header and Rafael bundled the ball 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 all seemed destined for an inconspicuous ending until the dramatic final twist.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "We took our foot off the pedal in a big way – Chelsea deserved to win. There are often controversial incidents when we play Chelsea, but we can't complain, we didn't play well enough."
Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez: “It was a difficult game in terms of tempo, we didn’t have the tempo, they didn’t have tempo. We had chances, they had chances, then in the second half it was the same so we played Fernando [Torres] to try and add some pace and we won the game.
"For us every game is massive now. Playing against the champions was tough and we did very well, but now we must focus on the next game. We have to beat Tottenham [Hotspur]. It will not be easy. Then we play Everton"
|12 May 2013||v Swansea (H)|
|19 May 2013||v West Brom (A)|
|16 Mar 2014||v Man Utd (H)|
|22 Mar 2014||v West Ham (A)|
|25 Mar 2014||v Man Utd (H)|
|29 Mar 2014||v Man Utd (H)|