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May 5, 2013

Mata inspires and enhances Rafa's CV

In the interim before the Special One's return, the Snubbed One is almost rehabilitated. While Jose Mourinho has long delighted in deriding Rafa Benitez, he may be the beneficiary of his hard work if he returns to Stamford Bridge. His arch-enemy's legacy could be Champions League football. His probable successor should be grateful, even if, typically, the Spaniard celebrated by the Chelsea support was Juan Mata, not Benitez.

Ignored by the fans, the unappreciated caretaker nonetheless secured his greatest victory in league football since he left Liverpool. Mata's late winner - later credited as a Phil Jones own goal - enabled Benitez to defeat another of his critics, Sir Alex Ferguson, and position Chelsea to effectively ensure a top-four finish when they face Tottenham on Wednesday. "We are in the driving seat," Benitez said. "We can win and be there." The most demanding of jobs, with a backdrop of hostility and despite the most gruelling of workloads, is near completion. Benitez will not be feted, but he may be fulfilled.

• Okwonga: Man United drift towards finishing line
• Lythell: Mata takes Chelsea to brink of UCL

Ferguson had sniped that Benitez is overly concerned about his CV. Lacking the Old Trafford dictator's job security, he may be but it is improving, along with his record in their private duels. Benitez is unbeaten in three meetings since he returned from his unwanted sabbatical. Including Roberto Di Matteo's reign, Chelsea have defeated Manchester United in three competitions this season, even if Ferguson's charges secured the victory that mattered most to them, 3-2 in October's league game.

Unlike Liverpool's 4-1 demolition of United in 2009, Benitez's latest triumph will not live long in the memory. It was not a clinical dissection of title rivals, but three points pilfered against a side deprived of purpose after clinching the league. The decider, Ferguson complained, was "a lucky goal", albeit one that followed delightful build-up when Ramires backheeled to Oscar, who picked out Mata. His scuffed shot took a telling deflection off Jones. Even the stylist can savour a scrappy goal, however, especially when it is as significant.

"He could be player of the year for everything he did for us," said Benitez. Until the Premier League rebranded it an own goal, it was Mata's 19th of the season. Yet its timing was symbolic: Chelsea scored late on in their 65th game of an epic season. The more games they play, the stronger they seem to get.

And yet if hostilities have thawed a little between the warring managers, who are prepared to share a handshake if not a drink, there is no entente cordiale between United and Chelsea. Rafael da Silva's season ended early, one Brazilian dismissed for a hack at another. Ferguson, however, felt the blame lay with David Luiz for first provoking his right-back and then writhing on the ground.

"It was quite clear Luiz has elbowed him twice," he argued. "The referee hasn't even seen it at all. He has gone with the fact Luiz has rolled around on the floor and that has convinced him it is a red card."

If Ferguson, whose moans incorporated the suggestion referee Howard Webb gave Chelsea every decision, appeared a graceless loser, he was nonetheless willing to admit the visitors were deserving winners. They joined Tottenham and Manchester City in winning at Old Trafford this season, even if they were aided by Ferguson's team selection.

It was a day to suggest his squad is not quite as strong as he imagines. For three-quarters of the match, United were minus Wayne Rooney although, unless Paris Saint-Germain are also intent on buying the rested trio of David de Gea, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand, less should be read into this than the last marquee match he watched from the bench. Without him, however, Robin van Persie was deprived of sufficient support in attack; his only clear-cut chance came from an incisive pass from Ryan Giggs.

Anderson and Tom Cleverley, two men who can operate in Carrick's slipstream, were rudderless without the leader of the midfield. The Brazilian has more personality, the Englishman the merit of youth but neither is cementing a place. Indeed, twin understudies departed together as contrasting replacements, Rooney and Alexander Buttner, entered proceedings.

Cleverley had a series of shots that lacked accuracy, Jones, the galloping gurner, a number of crosses that ranged from the reasonable to the wayward. Anders Lindegaard, standing in for De Gea, was fortunate not to concede when he unconvincingly pushed Oscar's shot on to the post.

At the other end, United failed to score in home league match for first time since December 2009 when Gabriel Agbonlahor fired Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa to victory. As Chelsea kept a clean sheet, Benitez was justified in sidelining the club captain for a second successive game.

"Where's your favourite centre-half," the Stretford End inquired innocently as a bibbed John Terry warmed up in front of them. Schadenfreude is their default reaction whenever he falls from grace. They enjoy Benitez's mishaps, too, but there was nothing for his tormentors to savour. Ridiculed and written off, Benitez has almost completed his mission.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Juan Mata - Overlooked with the focus on Van Persie, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale, he has had a fabulous season. Even before forcing the winner, he was Chelsea's most creative player, drifting intelligently into the inside-right channel to find space.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Few of Ferguson's squad players enhanced their reputations and there was a huge cheer when Rooney was belatedly introduced. Much of their crossing, in particular, was poor and the only invention and incision in the midfield came from a 39-year-old in his 939th game, in the shape of Giggs. Wilfried Zaha will be an interesting addition in the summer, not least because United's wingers have underachieved this season.

CHELSEA VERDICT: While a stalemate long looked likely, they were the more determined and the more positive side. Chelsea's progress is remarkable given the lack of prolific striker: indeed they have only had two league goals from specialist forwards in 2013. Frank Lampard, looking for No. 202 of his Chelsea career in all competitions, will have to wait another game to draw level with Bobby Tambling although, as ever, he kept trying his luck.

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