After this sweetest of late victories Chelsea enter a breathless four-game finish inside a fortnight that will define their season. Juan Mata claimed three invaluable points with the 87th-minute finish that deflected off Phil Jones to beat Anders Lindegaard. Further glee ensued for the travelling support when Rafael da Silva was sent off but the trip back to London will have been filled with talk of how this campaign could end triumphantly.
Eleven decisive days in May for Chelsea begin on Wednesday when victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge would secure them a Champions League berth and probably lay moribund the same hopes of André Villas-Boas's side. Aston Villa (away, on Saturday), the Europa League final with Benfica (Wednesday week) and Everton's visit on the final day close a sequence they should embark on in fine heart after the showing here.
Rafael Benítez's side dominated Manchester United in the first half and ended the second the same way as Mata, Oscar, Demba Ba, David Luiz and Victor Moses took the contest to the champions.
Yet until the winner this season's problem for Chelsea had been crystallised in the contest reaching the dying stages and them still having failed to secure material gain as the match remained scoreless.
This was the fifth time this latest Roman Abramovich vintage had met Sir Alex Ferguson's 13th title team. After October's reverse league fixture, a Capital One Cup encounter and an FA Cup quarter-final that went to a replay, the count stood at 2-1 to Chelsea.
Their sole loss, though, was the one match each club would have chosen to win – the 3-2 victory for United that secured three invaluable points and dealt Chelsea a sizeable psychological blow in front of their own support.
On another of the now familiar days when John Terry was left on the bench by Benítez, Chelsea spent long periods pinning United back through fluid play that continually broke down in front of Lindegaard's goal. A David Luiz 40-yard left-to-right diagonal sprayed into acres of space for César Azpilicueta to gallop on to offered one illustration: the right-back put in a ball that caused Lindegaard a problem but failed to find a team-mate who could score.
From Ferguson downward all the talk at United since taking the title with victory over Aston Villa here two weeks ago has been of not letting up. Deep down, though, there was bound to be a slight slacking off from players who have steamrollered so impressively through opponents virtually every week.
The United who backpedalled as Oscar took the ball on a 60-yard jaunt before shooting through Nemanja Vidic's legs to force Lindegaard to save was evidence of the slight slumber that has taken over them.
Since replacing Roberto Di Matteo, Benítez can be proud of the job he has done in ensuring Chelsea have the chance to follow last season's Champions League triumph with the Europa League crown. Entry into next term's Champions League is also firmly in the club's sights.
In the next campaign, though, Abramovich should demand more. The first prerequisite for Benítez's successor should be not to arrive at four games remaining of the 2013-14 season with the Russian's cash-soaked club a yawning 20 points behind the leaders, as they did here. That old and perhaps – under Abramovich's ownership – unrealistic chestnut of "stability" would also be a boon.
This was the state Chelsea were in here: staring at a 20-point margin, with Benítez already beginning the search for a fresh post, and José Mourinho engaging in a clumsy come-and-get-me-plea to his former employer.
At the same juncture last year the Blues trailed by 25 points to Ferguson's team, a gap that would remain the same when Manchester City were crowned champions on the final day.
Yet Abramovich's summer investment in Eden Hazard (£32m), Oscar (£25m), Moses (£9m), Marko Marin (£7m) and Azpilicueta (£6.5m) that stood at £79.5m, before Ba's January arrival for £7m, demanded better than this late-season dogfight to qualify for European club football's premier competition, with the champions vanishing into the distance.
As Ferguson stated, what is required is the C-word. "We had the right focus that gave us a consistency that was simply too much for our rivals," he said.
This is next year's holy grail for Hazard, Oscar, Moses and company, who should all be better for this first year competing at the sharp end of the division.