Chelsea break United’s shop window

Posted by Mark Payne

Manchester United currently occupy a strange netherworld where their football games continue to garner the most attention, but actually matter very little. Perhaps this is how seasons usually end for mid-table teams, or those who know they are out of the running for Europe in March. Altogether, it is not a demeanor that suits United. Sunday they battled Chelsea in spurts, but it was clear nothing was at stake.

The Londoners will be jubilant about their 1-0 victory and it is another tremendous achievement for Rafael Benitez’s CV. Premier League-winning manager Sir Alex Ferguson had other things on his mind though. It would never be admitted publicly, but this game against Chelsea was an opportunity to put some players in the shop window for a transfer away from Old Trafford this summer.

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A glance at the midweek Champions League semifinals was clear evidence that United will need to improve their squad if they are to dine at Europe's top table next season. That means members of their squad will need to make way for new arrivals.

Anderson has completed 18 full matches in six years at Manchester United. He has had about two good games for the club, and one was in 2007. He was lively and industrious in a fairly stale first half at Old Trafford, but if somebody offers a few quid for him, United will take it. He showed all the potential in the world against Chelsea, but it didn't make any difference -- much like his entire United career.

Antonio Valencia seemed to be turning the corner a few weeks ago but regressed badly against the Europa League finalists. Watching him give the ball away limply was met by resigned shakes of the head in the stands. He has had a dreadful season and Fergie is unlikely to be sentimental. By all accounts, Wilfried Zaha is playing superbly in the Championship and will arrive at Old Trafford in July. It doesn’t look good for Valencia's long-term career prospects.

Rafael, on the other hand, is all pugnacious endeavor. It was a delight to see him charge forward throughout this match and attack the Chelsea back line with the same vigour he defends United's goal. He was provoked and overly punished for the sending-off. The game was not crucial and he can be forgiven.

For the first 80 minutes of this lethargic game, the most interesting thing on the park was the duel between Rafael and Ashley Cole. Cole is a dreadful human, but a great footballer. It is not an exaggeration that he reinvented the role of wingback, certainly in England, and continues to play at a high level.

In many ways, Rafael is his mirror image as a player. At Old Trafford, both players were intent on providing for their strikers, covering their centre backs and not being bamboozled by their opposite number. On 30 minutes, after a crunching tackle from Rafael on Cole, the players exchanged a quick handshake. It seemed as though there was mutual respect for the job each does.

But United lost. Chelsea have managed to put the champions out of two cup competitions and beat them at Old Trafford in the 2012-13 season. It is never pleasant to acknowledge such realities, and this is why Ferguson is intent on strengthening his squad again.

United will be back again stronger again next season. But Benitez and his CV will not.

Follow Mark on twitter @markjpayne

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