So that weird end of season feeling continues, now extended to include defeat at home to Chelsea and our first red card of the season. It’s a loss I can’t greet with total apathy, because I was really hoping we could stop the rent boys securing a place in the Champions league next season, but I find myself anticipating eagerly the trophy presentation next Sunday and I realise it’s impossible to feel too pissed off about things. Add to that the clear evidence that, despite the three points today, Chelsea still look some way from being the real deal in terms of championship contenders and you would conclude that Arsenal and Spurs fans are understandably probably a lot more unhappy than us about the result today.
In fact, they were probably unhappy the moment they saw the United team sheet. No De Gea, Rio or Carrick meant we lined up without three of our four members of the PFA team of the year, and Rooney was on the bench too, news that probably gave several of the press box hacks a mild orgasm. Not that we put out a team of novices, of course. Lindegaard – who looked anything but a reliable understudy for De Gea – was probably due another run out about now anyway, while we’ve rotated the central defenders all season and of course Rooney’s no stranger to the sidelines of late.
It could hardly be claimed that United’s packed midfield did much to make the game a thrilling spectacle, but the formation looked logical enough: Phil Jones was an understandable choice at the base of the three given the way Chelsea went through us in the FA Cup, while having an extra body in there takes some of the burden off Tom Cleverley, whose wilting energy in the second half of games has been one of the few unwanted features of United’s season. Similarly, in a game like this, RVP on his own up front made absolute sense.
Apart from the occasional masterful ball from Giggsy in midfield, though, there was little class about us. Similarly Ramires, who always plays well against us, strutted around the Chelsea midfield purposefully enough without he or his colleagues looking like a side who were willing to take any undue risks to secure the three points. And so a sterile encounter ensued for a good eighty minutes: not exactly a chess-like encounter, more a game of draughts between two players who’ve got the same colour pieces.
All that finally changed in the eighty-seventh minute when Chelsea’s midfield three combined – Ramires feeding Oscar, who in turns picked out Mata – to take the lead. Mata’s shot was about a passionless as anything else that happened during the ninety minutes but it still managed to roll past Lindegaard and secure the three points for Chelsea.
Of course, it may be that Benitez will claim that this was his game-plan all along: squeeze the life out of the match before eking out a chance late on and grabbing the three points. It’s true that his team were beginning to push men forward in the last ten minutes, but I’m not buying this for a second. Chelsea, I’m sure, would have settled for a draw and had clearly approached the game like a team who regarded anything else as a bonus.
They got their bonus, of course, but the game’s only real outbreak of passion was still to come. Rafael lost his rag after getting roughed up by an increasingly manic David Luiz and fell for the oldest trick in the book: he aimed a kick at his fellow Brazilian right in front of the referee’s assistant and duly became the first United player to be sent off this season. His victim’s uncontrollable giggle as he lay on the ground only added to the bizarreness of the incident and the occasion in general.
More seriously, while playing against David Luiz would be enough to wind anyone up, Rafael needs to wise up on such occasions. He’s matured a lot this season and, for me, is on his way to becoming one of the finest right backs in the world, but he’s got to stop himself getting riled by the antics of an irritating little tosser because there are enough of them around in the English and European game to do that to him. Of course, on this occasion, it was a minor blemish on a successful season that continues to trundle to its end much in the manner of that Mata goal.
The result means Chelsea will probably be in the Champions League next season after all, which in turn will help them to flash the credit card convincingly around Europe, but for me they still look like potential also-rans for next season too. Now bring on Swansea next week and let’s celebrate getting our hands on the trophy again with a bit more style.