Chelsea secured automatic Champions League qualification in as anti-climactic a match as we have ever played at Old Trafford.
A makeshift Chelsea team with Gudjohnsen as the lone striker and none on the bench should have run away with this match against as poor a Manchester United team as I’ve seen in many years.
But a red card for Robert Huth, who made one too many clumsy challenges, and an appalling howler from Carlo Cudicini handed United a point they rarely looked like getting.
Without Hasselbaink, Crespo and Mutu up front, we employed a 4-5-1 formation that, at least in the early going, frequently stretched United’s defence and made a goal for us look inevitable.
We were helped by a series of giveaways by United that looked likely to be punished as we buzzed around with Lampard, Cole and Gronkjaer swiftly moving up to support Gudjohnsen.
We had already had a fine Gudjohnsen “goal” ruled out for a marginal offside when Gronkjaer fired a magnificent right-foot drive from the left corner of the penalty area into the far corner of the net via the underside of the bar. Unlike Wednesday, there was no mistaking his intentions this time. And it’s worth noting, it came after a corner was only partially cleared, our second goal in three games from corners.
It was what we deserved for sparkling interplay and rapid movement that made United look pedestrian.
As so often with us, we couldn’t sustain the early promise and gradually United came back into the game without creating any real openings. Ryan Giggs did have a shot well stopped by Cudicini, but the goalie rarely had anything to do beyond the routine.
Huth picked up his first yellow card for scything down Fletcher on the edge of the area after being caught out of position and then a few minutes before half time an ill-judged challenge on Saha gave United a penalty. Van Nistlerooy didn’t blast it as he usually does, but tried to place it low to Cudicini’s right and the goalie made a wonderful save to push it around the post. Saha had replaced Scholes who had been booked for diving in the penalty area and then somehow escaped a red card with a bad tackle from behind a few minutes later. The Old Trafford disease had struck referee Steve Bennett.
The second half was dire. Chelsea had little ambition and United had no idea. Only a lovely piece of footwork by Gudjohnsen foiled by goalie Howard broke the monotony. This had an easy 1-0 win written all over it until Huth was caught out of position again and tripped Van Nistlerooy who was trying to race through a gap between our two centre backs. A second yellow was inevitable and ensured a final awkward 15 minutes.
But the United onslaught never materialised and their equaliser came when Cudicini dropped the simplest of crosses at the feet of Van Nistelrooy who couldn’t miss the open net despite his recent form. If Cudicini is trying to show he deserves to be No. 1 next season when Cech arrives, he is sending out mixed signals.
A couple of quick substitutions saw Geremi moved to right back, at last, and Babayaro brought on to bolster the left-sided defence.
The remaining minutes were comfortable enough as clueless United showed that whatever our problems, theirs are infinitely worse.