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May 5, 2013

Chelsea sinks United with late own goal

MANCHESTER, England -- Chelsea seized the initiative in the race for Champions League qualification by beating already-crowned champion Manchester United 1-0 on Sunday, with Phil Jones' late own goal settling a lackluster match at Old Trafford.

Juan Mata's low shot in the 87th minute was heading narrowly wide when Jones deflected the ball into the far corner, keeping Chelsea in third place in the Premier League standings.

United defender Rafael Da Silva was sent off in the final minute for a petulant foul on David Luiz, who was smiling as he rolled around on the ground in an apparent effort to trick the referee. Rafael appeared to retaliate after being struck twice by Luiz's elbow.

"He quite clearly elbows him twice then rolls about like a dying swan and that convinces the referee," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "He was smiling -- it's bad. What kind of professional does that?"

The late red card capped a forgettable display by the new champions, who haven't won either of their games since regaining the title from Manchester City two weeks ago. It's the first time since December 2009 that United failed to score at home -- a run stretching back 67 games -- and Ferguson will be unhappy with his much-changed team's pedestrian display against a rival playing its 65th game of a grueling season.

While United has little left to play for this season, the same cannot be said of Chelsea, which has reached the final of the Europa League and is in control of the fight for Champions League qualification behind the two Manchester clubs.

The Blues are one point ahead of Arsenal, having played a game less, and three clear of fifth-place Tottenham. Chelsea and Spurs meet at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, with all the pressure now on the visitors.

"We are in the driving seat now," Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez said. "If we can win, we can be there (in the Champions League) but Tottenham is a very good team. It will be a final for both of us."

There is little love lost between the two managers, dating back from Benitez's six years in charge of Liverpool, and the Spaniard has now won two and drawn the other in three meetings with United over the past two months. This was the fifth Chelsea-United fixture this season -- they met in both cup competitions, too -- and easily the worst.

The subplots were plentiful ahead of what is always one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in British football, with the last league match between the teams -- United's 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge in November 2012 -- ending in acrimony when Chelsea midfielder Ramires accused referee Mark Clattenburg of racially abusing teammate John Obi Mikel during the game.

Throw in the long-running feud between United defender Rio Ferdinand and Chelsea pair John Terry and Ashley Cole in the wake of last season's racism scandal involving Terry and Ferdinand's brother, Anton, and there were enough plot-lines at Old Trafford to fill a soap opera.

What materialized was a major disappointment, though, with the match having the feel of a preseason friendly until coming to life in the final five minutes. The sides had averaged nearly five goals in their previous six meetings but this was never going to follow suit.

Terry and Ferdinand were named on the bench, ending the debate over whether they would shake hands in the pre-match ritual, and with Ferguson leaving David De Gea and Wayne Rooney on the bench and resting Michael Carrick, Chelsea always had a great chance to claim a rare win at Old Trafford.

"We deserve to play in the Champions League next season," Mata said. "If we play together like we did today, I think we can do it."

Mata was arguably the best player on the pitch so it was no surprise to see him heavily involved in the goal, collecting a pass from Oscar and sending in a low, angled shot that deflected in off Jones' inside leg.

"Sometimes you have players growing (through the season) and he is one of these players," Benitez said. "He could be the player of the year. He is always an influential player in the game."

Ferguson's decision to give his fringe players an outing backfired. The makeshift central-midfield pairing of Anderson and Tom Cleverley struggled to assert any dominance, Robin van Persie often cut an isolated figure up front and the defense looked shaky without Ferdinand.

"It was difficult for players coming in," Ferguson said. "Chelsea had everything to play for. They (some United players) haven't played for quite a while. That being said, we should be doing better."

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