Midfielder Juan Mata struck an 87th-minute winner as Chelsea won 1-0 at champions-elect Manchester United on Sunday to reclaim third place in the Premier League and tighten their grip on a UEFA Champions League spot.
A lackluster game at Old Trafford was drifting toward a goalless draw when Mata collected a pass from Oscar and dispatched a low shot that took a deflection off Phil Jones on its way into the bottom-right corner.
Mata’s goal means that Chelsea will now go into tomorrow’s crunch clash against Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge with a three-point lead over their London rivals, who are bidding to crash into the top four.
Arsenal are sandwiched between the pair in fourth, a point behind Chelsea, having played a game more.
United had rightback Rafael da Silva sent off late on and although their lead over second-placed Manchester City remains 13 points, they have failed to win in two games since clinching their 20th league title.
United manager Alex Ferguson conceded his side “weren’t good enough,” but he felt Rafael had been reacting to an elbow from David Luiz when he was sent off by referee Howard Webb.
“He was elbowed. He retaliated and the player who retaliates always gets the bigger penalty,” Ferguson told Sky Sports. “David Luiz elbowed him twice, but Rafael was rash and shouldn’t have retaliated.”
United made five changes from the side that drew 1-1 at Arsenal the previous weekend, with Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and goalkeeper David de Gea among the players dropping to the bench.
Chelsea were missing Eden Hazard due to a calf strain and made four changes from their Europa League semi-final second-leg success against Basel on Thursday last week.
The visitors made a bright start, with United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard touching a shot from Oscar onto the post and Demba Ba curling a shot wide from the left.
United came to life slowly and did not pose a threat until late in the first half, when Robin van Persie diverting a glorious Ryan Giggs pass wide and then headed straight at Petr Cech from Nemanja Vidic’s cross.
The second half was similarly underwhelming, with Frank Lampard blazing over for Chelsea and United substitute Rooney heading over the bar at the other end.
Mata finally settled things with three minutes to play with a low shot that nicked off Jones and trundled past Lindegaard, before Rafael was sent off for kicking out at countryman Luiz.
Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez was reluctant to discuss Rafael’s red card.
“I didn’t see the incident and I didn’t see any replay,” Benitez said.
Everton remain on course to finish above Liverpool for a second consecutive season after holding their city rivals to a 0-0 draw in a scrappy Merseyside derby at Anfield earlier in the day.
Liverpool’s best chance saw a goalbound effort from man-of-the-match Steven Gerrard cleared by Everton defender Sylvain Distin, who had a goal contentiously disallowed at the other end.
It meant Reds stalwart Jamie Carragher failed to finish on the winning side in his 30th and final Merseyside derby.
“I don’t want to be a whinging manager, but we scored a legitimate goal today. It should have counted,” Everton manager David Moyes said.
Gerrard thought he had put Liverpool ahead in the second half, but after rounding goalkeeper Tim Howard he saw his shot cleared off the line by Distin.
Distin had earlier seen a header ruled out by referee Michael Oliver for a foul that was far from evident, but Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers felt defeat would have been harsh on his side.
“I can have no complaints,” Rodgers said. “The players gave everything and the very least we deserved was a point.”