Mata takes Chelsea to brink of Champions League

Posted by Phil Lythell

Andrew Yates/Getty ImagesChelsea's picture for a Champions League place brightened Sunday when a deflected shot by Juan Mata, right, gave the Blues the win at Old Trafford.

There are barely enough adjectives in the English language to describe the magnitude of Chelsea's 1-0 win at Manchester United on Sunday.

The landscape of the top four was dramatically altered the moment Juan Mata's deflected shot crept inside Anders Lindegaard's left-hand post to leave Chelsea on the brink of qualifying for next season's Champions League.

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Barring a mathematical miracle, a win against Tottenham on Wednesday will guarantee Chelsea's return to Europe's elite competition. It is an opportunity Chelsea must not let slip.

That it was Mata who put Chelsea in this position was entirely apt. Yet again he was his team's standout performer, pulling the strings and directing operations with his balletic poise and deft touch.

The little Spaniard has without doubt been the club's player of the season, just as he was last campaign. But his qualities lie not just in his technique and vision. His work rate at Old Trafford was an example to all, and he continually displays the kind of leadership in adversity that has marked him out as one of the totems of this new generation of Chelsea players.

When time is eventually called on Frank Lampard and John Terry's time at Stamford Bridge, Mata -- along with David Luiz and Petr Cech -- should amply fill the void left by the two English legends.

As significant as Sunday's win was, it was also fully merited and really should have been decided well before the 86th-minute winner. Manchester United were there for the taking, with their players almost pedestrian at times.

The pace and verve that is the marquee of the Premier League champions was entirely absent with nothing to be gained either in victory or defeat, and their approach allowed Chelsea to settle into the game immediately and largely dominate proceedings.

As well as United's attitude, the team sheet also gave the visitors the room to dictate the play. Rafael Benitez must have been delighted to see the almost invisible Anderson in the opponent's midfield together with Tom Cleverley, a player who is only effective when the rest of the team is playing well.

Phil Jones aside, there was nobody in red who can claim to have performed to their maximum level, something for which the Blues will be very grateful.

Even so, Chelsea did not make it easy for themselves, with the lack of a cutting edge manifesting itself for the umpteenth time this season. For all the diligent and attractive approach work, too often promising positions were squandered in the final third.

The inability to pick the killer pass or spot the intelligent movement of teammates will have tested the patience of every supporter given that Gareth Bale's late winner for Spurs on Saturday had ensured that Chelsea were required to bring all three points back to London with them.

What was admirable, however, was the patience Chelsea showed in trusting themselves to carve out an opportunity and then to take it. Ramires' beautifully timed tackle on Wayne Rooney then kick-started the one Chelsea move in which the ball was used efficiently and decisively.

United might have had the chance to clear but once the ball was returned to the Blues, both Ramires and Oscar chose exactly the right option to allow Mata to do his thing. They might have left it late but it got the job done.

Inevitably, given the instant forum supplied by social media, there has been a predictable brouhaha over Howard Webb's refereeing, in particular the red card issued to Rafael, with plenty quick to lambast Luiz for first provoking his Brazilian compatriot into retribution and then failing to deliver an expression of contorted anguish once fouled.

But let's get this straight, Luiz did not elbow Rafael. He was robust in shielding the ball, certainly, but there was no dangerous play. Instead, he invited the feisty Rafael into making a hot-headed swipe which warranted a clear red card.

Then, rather than jumping quickly to his feet he remained on the ground and smirked. While that might rub some people up the wrong way, there was only one person to blame for the match not ending with 22 men on the field and it wasn't Luiz.

The incident might not have covered either player in glory but it also had no bearing on the game itself -- something even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted -- and it was one of the few decisions Webb actually got right during the 90 minutes.

Whether playing at home or away, Chelsea appear to be gathering momentum at just the right stage of the season. Had it not been for late goals in each of Tottenham's last two matches -- or Luis Suarez's act of daylight robbery a fortnight ago at Anfield -- then the first objective of this season would have already been accomplished.

As it is, that aim can be completed on Wednesday night. What a match it promises to be.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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