Sir Alex Ferguson is being rewarded by his stalwarts while Chelsea counterpart Carlo Ancelotti prays for time
The hard games come easy to this Manchester United side. They outplayed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and when subjected to sporadic pressure, dealt with it confidently. The losers were, of course, denied an obvious penalty in stoppage time when the referee Alberto Mallenco and his assistants reacted as if they could not bear to embroil themselves in such a fuss so close to the end of their shift.
Shameful as the lapse was, a 1-1 draw would only have put Carlo Ancelotti's side in a slightly better position in the Champions League quarter-final since an away goal still carries high value. United, on the whole, had been as capable again as they have been on their travels through this tournament.
They have not conceded a goal in the five away matches to date, but that impressive sequence becomes intriguing when comparison is made with the domestic record. In 16 games on the road in the Premier League, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have kept a clean sheet on a mere four occasions.
While some note has to be taken of how the line-up varies from one competition to another, there is a core of players who have come to the stage where it is much easier for them to find energy in an electrifying contest. Ryan Giggs, at 37, is often uncanny for his vigour, but he reached an even higher level against Chelsea when he took the beautiful pass from Michael Carrick and, with one touch, exploited José Bosingwa's shaky positioning before setting up the goal for Wayne Rooney.
Ferguson is far from having an old squad. If the situation is enhanced when, say, the 32-year-old Rio Ferdinand is available, the acceptance that Edwin van der Sar, 40, will retire shortly, must still leave them wondering if the next goalkeeper can maintain such standards. United, obviously, are alive to the task ahead. Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable to marginalise Paul Scholes, 36, on a critical occasion, yet he spent his whole evening at Stamford Bridge as an unused substitute.
Giggs and Scholes must stand down relatively soon and the time will come when fans pine for the era those two shaped, and think less well of their successors. The manager's post also has to change hands in the comparatively near future. Ferguson is 69 and the club cannot be so complacent as to assume that he will burst into his seventies with the same dynamism and hunger. When he does depart, the challenge to his successor will be intense, even if it happened to be José Mourinho who filled the vacancy.
While those at other prominent clubs look at Ferguson and appreciate the boon of stability, it is not simple to achieve when a manager flounders or starts to tail off as he gradually fails to hold the attention of a squad. At Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti is merely in the middle of his second season but despite having landed the Double already an unwarranted shadow is falling over his prospects.
The standard plea that a manager should be given more time is sometimes glib, but the Italian ought to have earned patience. His signing of David Luiz in January was shrewd and the troubles at the club were inherited rather than caused by Ancelotti. If the £50m Fernando Torres is yet to score it happens also to be the case that there is no great flair from the midfielders who serve him. By the same token, any sort of partnership in attack is elusive when individualism is the trademark of Didier Drogba, a 33-year-old whose time is coming to an end.
He scored 37 goals for the club last season, but the present tally is 11. Frank Lampard's figures have fallen from 27 to nine because he has missed many matches. No one deserves to be blamed unless footballers are to be faulted for getting older or injured. Ancelotti took on a great task considering that his predecessor Luiz Felipe Scolari had been dismissed before Guus Hiddink restored order on a short-term basis.
The notion of a return to Stamford Bridge for Mourinho has a hypnotic force, but it seems far more likely he will be determined to prevail eventually with Real Madrid, assuming the club stand by him. Ancelotti has done enough to deserve Chelsea's trust. It is wrong to demand stability in every case since some managers will simply go on failing, but he merits at least a little of the faith that Ferguson enjoys in abundance.