Eto'o hat-trick ends United's slim title hopes
Chelsea 3 Manchester Utd 1
Jose Mourinho headed to the Savoy after this comfortable victory, receiving a special tribute night from the Football Writers' Association, but his team hardly needed to put on the Ritz to put Manchester United to the sword.
In second gear throughout, Mourinho's side were just too organised defensively, a contrast to the visitors, and just too intelligent tactically for United.
That was what should pain the champions most. Chelsea did not need to be special to win. Adding to the pain, Mourinho offered United his sympathy afterwards, saying the game had been closer. Such pitying almost indicated that Mourinho did not see United as rivals any more, certainly not in the Premier League, where David Moyes' side now lie 14 points behind the leaders Arsenal.
With Roman Abramovich smiling, and David Beckham grimacing, United's defence of their title ended here as their embarrassing defence dissolved in the face of the 32-year-old Samuel Eto'o, who went home with a huge smile and the match ball.
As Alex Ferguson and Mick Hucknall looked on, United slumped to their fourth loss out of five in January, checking into a heartbreak hotel as Mourinho prepared for the Savoy. United need a substantial change of personnel and attitude. Of those starting at the Bridge, only David de Gea, Rafael, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, Adnan Januzaj and Danny Welbeck are worth keeping. They badly missed the injured Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie but it is the defence most urgently needing rebuilding, with Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra expected to leave.
Jones needs bedding in at centre-half with Rafael to his right, a high-class centre-back alongside him and the likes of Luke Shaw at left-back. Central midfield has long required a dynamo, a player of guile and goals. If Rooney departs in the summer, as expected, United will also need to strengthen there. It will not be cheap.
The fact remains that United generate fortunes, with official sponsors ranging from a motorcycle partner in Thailand to an official noodles partner for Asia, Oceania and the Middle East, from Mr Potato to the Hong Kong Jockey Club. A powerful brand name must now help make a struggling squad powerful again.
Reports that the Glazer family, United's owners, are now looking at the possibility of a £600m bond issue to reduce their interest repayments was reflected in one banner held up by United fans in the Shed: '£600m reasons your time is up. Glazers out now. MUFC'.
United's fans were defiant amidst the gloom, telling Mourinho to "sit down" and chanting "Jose Mourinho, you wanted this job". He would probably have shaped United's imbalanced squad into a more effective team than Moyes has. Mourinho is an alchemist, improving players. Eden Hazard is a consistently effective force, tracking back as well as attacking. Willian is more imposing. Mourinho has revived John Terry.
Mourinho's judgment was questioned when he brought in Eto'o but it has proved a masterstroke. Mourinho even raised eyebrows when starting Eto'o ahead of Fernando Torres here but it was only glasses being raised at the end to his perspicacity.
He explained that Eto'o was better at "movement in small spaces" while Torres needed more space.
The Cameroonian's first goal arrived after 17 minutes. United had actually started well. Ashley Young was denied by Petr Cech but the champions were soon caught out. Eto'o collected a headed clearance from Jonny Evans, a dummy took Jones out of the way, opening the space up. Eto'o shot left-footed, the ball hitting the sliding Carrick and looping up and in past De Gea.
United still hinted at a goal. Evra hustled Oscar into surrendering the ball but shot into the side-netting. Januzaj, moving briefly away from his unsuccessful role in the hole, then crossed from the left. Welbeck was caught by Cesar Azpilicueta as he shot but Phil Dowd waved play on.
Mistakes and poor marking bedevilled United. Just before half-time, United only half-cleared a corner and then failed to push out. Chelsea poured back in. Ramires fed Gary Cahill, who whipped the ball across and Eto'o, given the freedom of the United box, swept his second past De Gea from 10 yards out.
Two became three for Eto'o four minutes after half-time.
Willian curled the ball in and Cahill was left free by Evans. De Gea somehow kept Cahill's header out but, as Antonio Valencia dithered, Eto'o was quickest to the loose ball, stabbing it over the line.
The history books needed updating. Eto'o became the first Chelsea player to score a hat-trick against United since 1955 and only the fourth player to net a Premier League hat-trick against United after David Bentley (for Blackburn Rovers, 2006), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool, 2011) and Romelu Lukaku (for West Brom in 2013).
Eto'o also struck for Barcelona in their 2009 Champions League final win over United in Rome and he may have compromised their chances of even qualifying for next season's competition. There was a response of sorts from United, the tireless Welbeck running into the box, cutting the ball back to Jones, whose shot was turned in by Javier Hernandez. It was the most hollow of consolations.
They will now miss Vidic for three games after he was dismissed late on for scything down Hazard while Rafael was fortunate not to follow his captain down the tunnel for a two-footed lunge on Cahill. Such indiscipline was borne of frustration and Moyes needs to instil greater leadership into the dressing-room.
The painful fact remains for Moyes that Chelsea were better organised, more in tune with their manager's tactical demands. In orchestrating his 100th Premier League win, Mourinho's ability to prepare teams tactically for the most demanding challenges is arguably unrivalled currently. Moyes has yet to acquire such knowledge; with United and while at Everton, Moyes has yet to win in the Premier League at Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and United (while at Everton) in 48 attempts.
Yet his United side have progressed promisingly in Europe this season. Moyes is a good manager requiring patience and money. He will continue to be backed by the board, and, it is to be hoped, backed powerfully in the summer transfer window when more A-list talents are for sale. Moyes has to be allowed to build his own squad, a reality that may take a couple of years, and United's board will have to hold their nerve through continued storm clouds. Encouragingly for Moyes, there was not a hint of rebellion amongst United supporters here. (© Daily Telegraph, London)