Chelsea had the last laugh here. Juan Mata struck a late deflected winner, David Luiz smirked as Rafael Da Silva was dismissed and Rafael Benitez got one over on his old feuding partner, Alex Ferguson. Mata, Luiz and Benitez certainly left Old Trafford all smiles.
This was a hugely significant moment in Chelsea's pursuit of Champions League football. For 86 minutes this was a stupefying game, a match littered with misplaced passes, inaccurate shooting and a lack of urgency more likely to stir demand for Prozac than Prozone. But then Mata intervened, his shot going in off Phil Jones.
The simple stats are that Chelsea are now third with 68 points and a game in hand over Arsenal, who lie a place and a point behind. Victory over Spurs, fifth with 65 points, on Wednesday guarantees Chelsea's seat at Europe's top table next term. This was a momentous win for Benitez, whose job as interim manager has been to ensure qualification for the Champions League.
Chelsea fans will never take to the former leader of Liverpool's fortunes, a man perceived to have once disparaged them, but the Manager of the Month for April is fulfilling the demands of the owner Roman Abramovich. Success in the Europa League final will make Benitez even more employable to another club. Chelsea were not at their best yesterday but they had Mata, who never stopped trying to find a way through.
Frank Lampard worked hard in midfield, captaining the side with John Terry on the bench. The Stretford End noticed Terry warming up, serenading him in toxic fashion as he ran towards them. Benitez and Robin Van Persie also had to endure some offensive chants from parts of the ground.
United will not fret unduly about this defeat, certainly not as much as followers of Arsenal and Spurs, who cannot have been impressed by a below-par performance from a below-strength team. Ferguson had joked that he would refuse his players permission to go to Chester races on Wednesday if they slipped up here. They certainly weren't at the races yesterday, failing to score for the first time in 67 home matches in the Premier League, dating back to December 2009.
Tom Cleverley and Anderson were granted opportunities to shine in attacking midfield positions but neither responded with sufficient vigour or precision. Michael Carrick's composure was much missed. Antonio Valencia still does not seem to have realised that Wilfried Zaha arrives shortly from Crystal Palace.
Van Persie looked less threatening without Wayne Rooney supplying him, although when the England international finally came on, he swiftly acclimatised to the game's mediocrity by twice giving the ball away.
The title won, United were inevitably going to lack sufficient intensity but this was still a timid response, still a contrast to Ferguson's bullish programme notes, in which he predicted that if his team applied themselves in their "normal fashion" they could enjoy "another decade of success".
Ferguson added that he didn't have "any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special and worth being around to see!"
There was little special to distract the 75,500 until late on. It felt like the Community Shield for a long periods. Phil Jones did anchor well and made some decent runs. Cleverley shot wide. Chelsea were missing Eden Hazard, who got no further than the directors' box, nursing a tight calf, but they did enjoy better chances. Chelsea wanted it more. They needed more. Oscar shot hard at goal in classic futsal fashion, poking it at speed. Anders Lindegaard, seeing it late, pushed it on to the post and was fortunate it rebounded into his arms.
On the game meandered. Lampard's 25-yarder bounced awkwardly but was gathered by Lindegaard. Mata was beginning to threaten, prompting a late challenge from Cleverley for which the Englishman somehow escaped censure.
United perked up briefly before the break. Van Persie met Ryan Giggs' superb pass but shot wide. Nemanja Vidic then popped up on the left, cutting the ball back but Van Persie's header was held by Petr Cech. An element of controversy seeped into the game early in the second half.
Giggs got away with pulling Luiz's shirt just outside the box.
On it went, distinctly undistinguished fare. Lampard shot over. Mata buried a free-kick into the wall. Finally, with some fans leaving, the game sprung to life. Rooney, who had replaced Anderson after 69 minutes, shouted at Howard Webb that he had been fouled by Ramires. In fact, it was Rooney who made contact with Ramires' foot.
Ramires and then Lampard raced upfield with the ball. United still had opportunities to resist Chelsea. Jonny Evans' clearance, helped on by Giggs, was picked off by Mata. As the Spaniard scampered down the inside-left channel, Ramires took over, deciding against shooting and advancing to the edge of the area. United were backpedalling as blue shirts swarmed forward. Ramires back-heeled the ball to Oscar, who calmly angled it across to the unmarked Mata. He took aim left-footed, his low shot clipped Jones and eluded Lindegaard.
It had to be Mata the catalyst. As so often this strange season, Mata had been Chelsea's guiding light during the preceding exceedingly gloomy 86 minutes. The Premier League spoil-sports promptly put out a missive saying it was a Jones own-goal.
As Chelsea celebrated, United seethed. As the game nudged injury time, Rafael lost his composure, reacting aggressively to Luiz's strong-arm attempts to fend him off. Luiz was culpable, swinging his arm twice at his compatriot, but nothing could forgive Rafael's response. His temper boiling over, Rafael snapped and kicked out at Luiz, catching him lightly on the right calf. Luiz reacted as if struck by a breaker on the Copacabana, tumbling down, clutching his leg. "He went down like he'd been shot,'' was the verdict of MUTV.
Luiz rolled one way and then the other. As Sian Massey stood there, waving her flag to signal the foul, a smirk spread across Luiz's face. Some of his team-mates called on Webb to punish Rafael with a card. Red, decreed the referee. Vidic attempted to console Rafael, who threw his arm up in annoyance as he walked towards the tunnel. Luiz continued to smile.
So, too, were all of the Chelsea contingent as the final whistle went four minutes later, laughing all the way south. (© Daily Telegraph, London)