The all-time champions
It was a vocal exercise in denial. As Manchester United accelerated into the history books, a blue corner of the East Stand broke into their umpteenth chorus of "Chelsea, champions". Technically, they still are, but it is only a technicality. Because when, rather than if, a point is procured against either Blackburn or Blackpool, United will have what they have long termed 'their title' back.
And, still more significantly, they will have the sense of superiority they have long desired. Chelsea were both closest challengers and subplot, because the Mancunian radar is directed elsewhere. The Stretford End's question was "Are you watching, Merseyside?" It was 2-1 in the clash of North and South, but it will soon be 19-18 in the battle fought along the East Lancs Road. Sir Alex Ferguson's fondness for conflict is such that he has waged war on the memories of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. He is one point away from leading Liverpool now, an inch away from knocking them off their perch.
"It's fantastic to be the most successful team in our country in terms of championship victories, and the minute we won that first one in '93, the door opened for us," Ferguson said. The slight to an unmentioned Liverpool was veiled. "For the last 17-18 years, you have to look at Arsenal and Chelsea always as the main challengers to us," he added.
Of late, it has tended to be Chelsea. If this match became a microcosm of a campaign, it had had suitable scorers. Javier Hernandez, arguably the signing of the season, got the first, while Nemanja Vidic, possibly the player of the year, got the second.
A 38-game struggle may have been decided in fewer than 38 seconds. Hernandez epitomising his instant impact as he latched onto Ji-Sung Park's through pass and defeated Petr Cech with a finish of typical composure to become the first player since Ruud van Nistelrooy to get 20 goals in a debut campaign at Old Trafford. The Mexican was helped along the way by a disorientated David Luiz, who lost his footing and then, in a half-time switch, his place on the pitch.
Amid intense United pressure, Vidic beat a static Branislav Ivanovic to score the second, converting a cross that came from a nonchalant waft of Ryan Giggs' left foot. Thereafter, though Frank Lampard volleyed Chelsea back into the game, United had the opportunities to turn a victory into a thrashing. "We could have scored six," Ferguson lamented.
He has found a blueprint to play Chelsea, with workhorses on the wings, a roadrunner in attack and Wayne Rooney roaming behind. Carlo Ancelotti's men had a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield but it counted for naught, Michael Carrick making intelligent interceptions and Giggs exerting a magnetism on the ball.
Not too many central midfielders seem to have a free role, but Giggs does; as he prepares to collect a 12th winners' medal, he has become the man for all seasons, the player with the capacity to make a pensioner gush. "Absolutely marvellous," Ferguson enthused. So, too, is United's record at Old Trafford.
With 17 wins out of 18, without conceding in the first half all season, it is near impeccable. Had they lost every match elsewhere, United's home form would still put them seventh in the table. "Our away form has been disappointing, but our home record is fantastic," Ferguson added. It is only mathematical confirmation of their triumph that they now require. "Knowing the players, they will get their point, no doubt about that," Ferguson said. "They won't muck up."
Ancelotti concurred. Disarming honesty is among his most endearing traits. "Manchester United played better than us and deserved to win this game," the Chelsea manager said. "They deserve to win the title."
Ferguson's extraordinary longevity highlights the unwarranted fragility of Ancelotti's hold on his position; he could go from Double-winner to dismissed in 12 months. His reluctance to make excuses is to his credit, however. "I don't know what the owner thinks about the season," he added. "In my opinion, we could do better."
For much of the year, that was the verdict on United. Not any more: they have peaked at the season's climax, a hat-trick of victories over Chelsea illuminating their campaign. The deluded of SW6 have six more days to style themselves champions. Then, near the Thames and the Mersey alike, facts will have to be faced: United will be officially the best. For the 19th time.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs. The outstanding player in both legs of the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea repeated the feat. Some of his passing was terrific and he drifted into dangerous positions time and again.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson was able to make eight changes after his shadow side demolished Schalke and felt the freshness of his team was crucial. "That won us the title," he said. There are plenty of other causes, from the predatory Hernandez to the glorious Giggs and the peerless partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Vidic, but Edwin van der Sar must rank highly on any list. Yet again, he made several terrific saves.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Ancelotti denied he was angry with Luiz, who erred for the opener and was hauled off at half-time, but his was a disappointing display. So, too, were the performances of the trio in the centre of midfield, who were overshadowed by Carrick and Giggs. Torres was the last man brought on but, summing up his season, to little effect.