Rafael Benítez must get credit for his Chelsea team selection, Demba Ba is no mere battering ram and United's league dominance has not been replicated in the cups
• Read Daniel Taylor's match report
After the furore created by the Chelsea lineup that succumbed at Southampton on Saturday, here was some belated justification for Rafael Benítez. This club will not countenance a failure to reach the Champions League, but the interim first-team coach is balancing that necessity – and the implications a fifth-place finish would have on his reputation – with his desire to claim silverware from his seven-month tenure at Stamford Bridge. He needs something tangible with which to emerge after this turbulent spell in London. The stronger of his two team selections eventually prevailed here against United to maintain Chelsea's remarkable recent record in the FA Cup, and a slog of a season will now definitely include at least one trip to Wembley, against Manchester City in the semi-final. They deserve credit for that, and this was a victory to cherish even if the fixture schedule ahead becomes ever more cluttered.
Sir Alex Ferguson had emerged early from the tunnel, waiting at its mouth as the teams made their way to the far side for the pre-match meet and greet. It was as if he was making a point, seeking out Benítez after the "snub" he had apparently delivered at the first game. The lack of any kind of acknowledgement between the pair then had been construed as the maintenance of the bad blood since Benítez first arrived in English football nine years ago, with theirs a relationship that will never be repaired. Frank Lampard actually shook hands with the Manchester United manager first – it was easy to read plenty into that gesture, too, given the veteran midfielder's contractual status – before clambering into a seat behind the home dug-out. When Benítez did emerge the hand was offered and received, with little fuss and hardly any eye contact, as the flash bulbs popped. The issue had essentially been petty, an unedifying distraction, so at least there was relief to be had in two grown men shaking hands and getting on with the task ahead.
Not that there was much to shout about in the game itself until four minutes into the second period when Demba Ba shrugged off his recent stodgy form. The Senegalese striker's relatively meagre goalscoring tally, particularly in the context of his prolific first half of the campaign with Newcastle, has gone largely unnoticed with focus tending to drift to Fernando Torres's toils. Ba had registered only once in the previous 10 matches. And yet, from Juan Mata's delicate and tantalising pass, there he was stretching out his right leg to guide his volley into the opposite corner past a static David de Gea. It was a goal of beauty after so much of the preceding huff and puff, a strike to ignite the contest, and Ba will have benefited from personal reward. Where he had appeared anxious before, the confidence had returned by the end.
Ba's goal would have felt less relevant had Chelsea's captain for the day not produced his own magical moment just after the hour-mark. Danny Welbeck's cross bit deep into the home penalty area where Javier Hernández, a player with seven goals in his previous 10 games against these opponents, had drifted behind César Azpilicueta and thumped a header at goal. Parity beckoned, only for Cech to conjure a save so breathtaking that even Chicharito, as he prepared for the corner, could only laugh and ask: "How did you do that?" Chelsea boast two outstanding goalkeepers on their books in Cech and Thibaut Courtois, who is on loan at Atlético Madrid but will make his mark at his parent club one day. The Belgian will be loaned out again next season, with Chelsea having enquired after Jack Butland prior to his move from Birmingham to Stoke, and to Celtic over Fraser Forster, in the hope that one could have arrived as a back-up. That search will resume in the summer, but the implication is clear: Cech is first-choice and a player whose class remains.
The frustration amid the visitors' ranks at the end was that of a team whose season had effectively been curtailed here. Sure, United still have a bit of work to do in the Premier League before they are mathematically certain of the league title, but it is almost theirs to celebrate. They must be lauded for their dominance in the division, their record having carried all before them. They have, in effect, been untouchable. And yet theirs was a sense of deflation that the campaign may now just fizzle out with the title all but claimed, no Champions League to galvanise them and no domestic cup competitions on the radar. Most clubs would accept a league championship as more than enough consolation for what might feel like a month of irrelevant fixtures at the tail-end of a long campaign. But United will be frustrated. They will look at the substitute Robin van Persie's late misses and wonder if the forward has run out of steam late on. How Rio Ferdinand, too, would have loved to have emerged from the boos to celebrate progress to Wembley. That was not to be.