Travelling on the early train up to Manchester, most fans’ expectations of this match were quite modest. Despite the excellent win at Leeds earlier in the week, many Chelsea supporters would have been happy with a point from this fixture. But those expectations were exceeded, and then some.
Chelsea started with the same line-up as the Elland Road win three days earlier. The travelling fans began in good voice but the opening chance went to United when Cole nodded down a Beckham pass into the path of van Nistelrooy, whose shot was well saved by Carlo Cudicini. Van Nistelrooy had managed to get the wrong side of John Terry but it proved to be Terry’s sole mistake in a masterful display.
The Blues’ first chance came shortly after when Keane turned a Le Saux cross behind for a corner. Hasselbaink fired the kick across goal and Melchiot beat the defenders to rifle in a firm header that Barthez did not even sniff before it hit the back of the net.
With Keane playing at centre half, United’s midfield lacked authority. Dalla Bona and Jokanovic, despite the latter’s usual share of cock-ups, took full advantage to boss the central area. This led to several more chances being created. JFH shot narrowly over, SDB snatched at a sitter with the goal at his mercy and GLS nearly snapped the crossbar with a spectacular long-range effort.
The Blues’ fans hardly dared hope that things could continue in this vein in the second half and United did press more. But their attacks were not overly threatening and Chelsea comfortably soaked up the pressure and looked to hit their opponents on the break.
This was typified by the second goal that began when a loose pass from Veron was intercepted in midfield and the Blues broke swiftly. The move culminated in a superb strike by JFH across the goal and into the far corner. His celebration seemed to be a release of the frustration built up from missing chances in recent weeks and it was matched in the away section.
Eidur Gudjohnsen hammered the final nail into the coffin with four minutes left. A well timed through ball sprung the offside trap, with Neville failing to hold the line, and Gudjohnsen scored with a fine left-foot strike across Barthez. This sparked another joyous celebration in the away section as Gudjohnsen ran towards it to perform a swan dive by the corner flag.
With United well beaten their fans streamed out of the theatre of nightmares well before the final whistle. No doubt the ironic chants of “You came all this way, and you lost” from the Chelsea fans sped them on their way, along with many a chorus of “Jingle Bells” and “Can you play you every week?”.
A final hats-off has to go to one particularly brave female Chelsea fan. On a tram crammed full of Mancs heading from the ground back to Picadilly station she proudly got her mobile phone to play “Jingle Bells”, much to the displeasure of the disgruntled home fans. You could spot the Blues’ fans by the grins on their faces.