There was a spat and a sending off and also a cheeky grin, but more importantly, there was—at long last—a goal, another win and three more valuable points for Chelsea in the race for the top four. All together, it meant a 1-0 victory for Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, and with it, Chelsea retook third place in the English Premier League.
It's the second time the Blues have beaten United 1-0, but this one will not have mattered as much to the Red Devils. United were beaten 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup last month, but while that loss ended their dream of a domestic double, this one came well after the league title was secured.
Recent encounters between these teams have included goals, controversy or both. Chelsea had two players sent off—one incorrectly—in a stormy 3-2 league defeat to United at Stamford Bridge in October. Afterward the Blues accused referee Mark Clattenburg of making a racist remark on the pitch.
No such drama threatened the first 85 minutes of this match. The league's two highest-scoring teams failed to find the net and at times looked uninterested in trying. Then, following Juan Mata's 87th-minute winner, tempers boiled and controversy ensued.
At kickoff, Anderson was a surprise starter in midfielder for United, while Nemanja Vidic returned to central defense following an injury. Sir Alex Ferguson left Wayne Rooney on the bench alongside defender Rio Ferdinand and goalkeeper David De Gea.
Rafa Benitez shuffled the Chelsea side that beat Swansea last weekend. Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz started in central defense ahead of John Terry and Gary Cahill, while Frank Lampard slotted into midfield in place of Luiz. Victor Moses started on the wing, with Eden Hazard out of the squad due to injury.
Oscar tested United keeper Anders Lindegaard with a low drive at the near post in the 14th minute, and Moses blasted a shot well over the goal from the edge of the box three minutes later. United responded and produced a pair of shots soon after. Robin van Persie hit the first wide with his preferred left foot, and Tom Cleverley had an attempt blocked from the edge of the box.
Half-chances continued to come at both ends. Lampard, still chasing Chelsea's all-time scoring record, dragged a long shot at Lindegaard, and Ba curled an effort wide of the far post from the left. Van Persie escaped momentarily behind the visitors' defense but his shot was blocked.
The Dutchman came close twice more before halftime. First he ran onto Ryan Giggs' pass through the Chelsea defense and redirected the ball just wide of the near post. In the final attack of the half, he headed at Petr Cech following Vidic's cross from the left.
By halftime the teams had combined for 19 chances but little quality. Both lacked sharpness in the attacking third, and neither showed the intensity of this season's previous meetings in the league and FA Cup.
The match followed a similar pattern after the break, only with fewer chances. Rooney entered in the 69th minute as Ferguson tried to liven up his side, and Benitez introduced Fernando Torres eight minutes later.
Mata finally broke the deadlock three minutes from time, and appropriately, the goal came from a deflection off Phil Jones. United complained about what they felt was a foul on Rooney in the build-up, but referee Howard Webb ignored the hosts' pleas.
The match finally came to life moments later as tempers flared along the touchline. Rafael was sent off after a clash with fellow Brazilian David Luiz, and while the decision might have been harsh, it was silly and needless for Rafael to become involved in a spat with so little at stake for his team.
Replays showed Luiz flashing a cheeky smile while lying in the corner, and that will only anger United fans even more. But with the title won weeks ago, that will hardly matter in the end.
And in the end, it might just be Luiz and Chelsea smiling when the top-four race is complete. The Blues face Tottenham on Wednesday at home in a critical match for both teams, and another victory would mean a six-point gap on their London rivals with two games left.
Sunday was not the most impressive performance of the season for Chelsea, but in the race for the top four, it was crucial. Repeating the result Wednesday would all but wrap up Champions League qualification for another season.