By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
For 86 minutes it was like a dreadful pre-season friendly, but then Juan Mata intervened to leave Chelsea just one more win from a place in next season’s Champions League.
The Spaniard’s strike, deflected off Phil Jones three minutes from time, earned the Blues a 1-0 victory at Manchester United on Sunday that moved them up to third in the Premier League table with three matches to play.
Champions League qualification was Rafa Benitez’s main task when he took over from Roberto Di Matteo in November, and the Spaniard is now on the verge of leaving a welcome gift for the next manager, one Jose Mourinho.
It is Mata, though, who has taken charge for Chelsea this season, both in the league campaign and their road to the Europa League final in Amsterdam.
The 25-year-old has made a startling 60 appearances for Chelsea this season but there were no signs of fatigue as he ran the length of the pitch to take Oscar’s fine pass in his stride and fire the ball into the bottom corner via Jones’ foot and the far post.
It was Mata’s 19th goal of the season - his 10th in the Premier League - while the playmaker has also provided 26 assists.
|TOP FOUR LATEST
|11/1||Chelsea are 11/1 with BetVictor to beat Tottenham 2-0 on Wednesday
Given his outstanding quality and consistency, it is a surprise that Mata did not feature more heavily in the player of the year reckoning, finishing a distant third behind Bale and Robin van Persie in both the PFA and FWA award voting.
Not that Chelsea should care. His awareness of space, accuracy of passing and wand of a left foot have made the difference in the tight games countless times this season.
Maybe he does not have Bale’s knack of the spectacular, but were it not for Mata, Chelsea would long be out of the race for a top-four finish.
Chelsea are unbeaten since March and have turned up the heat on Spurs and Arsenal during the run-in. A draw on Wednesday would still leave them in a very good position to qualify for the Champions League.
In a squad full of players who have won league titles - and the Champions League a year ago - this pressure is nothing. While Spurs have stumbled and fumbled, Chelsea have found consistency and strung together a run of victories.
Benitez believes it will be “a final for both teams” when Andre Villas-Boas’ side cross London.
In Mata and Bale, there will be two players on show who deserve to be playing at the highest stage. And both continue to do everything in their power to drive their team towards the Champions League.
Follow Greg Stobart on