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, especially with a new manager to recruit, and three points from one of Old Trafford's tamer afternoons courtesy of their deflected but deserved winner returned Chelsea to third place before Wednesday's showdown against Spurs at Stamford Bridge.
Rafael Benítez will be keen to have Eden Hazard back for that game. The Belgian failed a late fitness test on a calf strain and his creativity was missed. Even without him Chelsea managed to be more creative than United, who failed to score at home for the first time in 67 league matches. They also had a player sent off for the first time this season, though until Oscar picked out Juan Mata with a splendid pass four minutes from time it appeared neither side would be imaginative or committed enough to deserve all three points.
Just about the only time Mata put a foot wrong was in claiming afterwards that the occasion had been "like a final". It was hardly that. Petr Cech was on firmer ground when he said it had been a strange, end-of-season game. "The pace was quite a bit slower than usual but we did really well to come here and win," the goalkeeper said. While Mata's shot may end up being credited as an own goal by Phil Jones, it would never have happened without the Spaniard's ability to find space and his team-mates' willingness to keep going to the very end of a long season.
"We cannot give up now," Mata said. "Our aim is to finish third and we can do that if we keep winning. That's what we must do because I think we deserve to be in the Champions League next season."
Chelsea showed marginally the more enterprise in a 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 half-time 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 Cech but curled just the wrong side of a post. He then headed straight at the goalkeeper from a Nemanja Vidic cross.
United's other main 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 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 buildup to the goal began on the edge of their own penalty area, with Ramires cleanly dispossessing Rooney; then, as the ball was worked upfield through Ramires and Frank Lampard, United made the mistake of leaving Mata unmarked in the box. Oscar spotted him and supplied him, and a low shot that took a deflection off Jones beat Lindegaard's dive to creep in off the far post.
"It was a bit of a lucky goal, going in off Phil Jones," said Sir Alex Ferguson at his curmudgeonly best, though at least the United manager did not dispute Ramires's tackle on Rooney, or indeed the result. "We took our foot off the pedal so we can't complain," Ferguson said. "We didn't play well enough to deserve anything."
Any hope United had of answering back disappeared with the hot-tempered Rafael Da Silva when the full-back was dismissed for kicking out at David Luiz. The Chelsea defender, not entirely innocent in the coming together that provoked Da Silva's petulance, was seen smirking to himself as he lay clutching his knees by the corner flag after checking to see that the referee had produced a red card.
Ferguson was not best pleased. "He was elbowed but I don't think the referee saw that," he said. "All he saw was Luiz rolling around on the floor like a diving swan." Yet for once Ferguson was not the centre of the story, and even more unusually his team were not the one with the most desire. This was another stealthy but significant victory for Benítez. Something else that will stand out on what even Ferguson must now admit is quite an impressive CV, even if is he in the habit of mentioning it too often.
Man of the match Juan Mata (Chelsea)