The Blues secured a potentially huge three points at Old Trafford, and a first win away at Manchester United since the 2009/10 campaign courtesy of a Juan Mata goal four minutes from time.
It had been a match with few clear-cut opportunities to speak of at either end, and looked to be heading for a stalemate until the Spaniard won it for us at the death with his 19th goal of the campaign.
Rafael was shown a red card soon after following a nasty kick to the back of David Luiz as tempers threatened to boil over, but the Blues – unlike on our last visit to the north west, when we conceded a late equaliser at Liverpool – held on to move three points clear of Tottenham Hotspur.
Andre Villas-Boas’ side visit Stamford Bridge on Wednesday for what could be a pivotal clash in the race to finish in the top four, and after this result, another three points would guarantee us qualification for next season’s Champions League.
Rafael Benitez made three changes to the side which beat Basel 3-1 on Thursday. Having missed the game against the Swiss side through suspension, Ashley Cole comes back into the side for Ryan Bertrand. David Luiz, having played in midfield on Thursday, moved back into a defensive role with Gary Cahill dropping down to the bench, while Demba Ba, who was ineligible in midweek, was given the nod ahead of Fernando Torres. Eden Hazard limped off late in the Basel game and missed the clash with a tight calf, replaced in the starting line-up by Juan Mata. John Mikel Obi missed a second successive match with a hip injury.
For the home side, meanwhile, Anders Lindegaard made a rare start in goal, while Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney dropped down to the bench. Robin van Persie started in attack.
The four matches between the two sides already this season had produced 19 goals, and it was the Blues who almost netted the 20th inside the opening few minutes. David Luiz played it forward to Mata on the edge of the penalty area; the Spaniard looked up and picked out Ba at the far post, but the striker was unable to adjust his body and headed over the bar.
It was a bright start by Benitez’s side, and the same combination threatened once more moments later, with United scrambling to get it away in a crowded box.
The home side, though, were unsurprisingly quick to respond, and after Petr Cech struggled to hold on to a Rafael Da Silva cross, Tom Cleverley fired wide with their first serious attempt.
Moses had started the game wide on the right, with Mata operating through the middle and Oscar playing on the right. It was clear from the opening stages, however, that the trio were free to switch when it suited, and the Brazilian almost broke the deadlock in the 14th minute when he was allowed to advance unchallenged, before driving low and hard against the foot of the post.
We were certainly looking a serious threat on the break and soon after allowed another opportunity to go to waste. Ramires drove at the United defence from deep before laying the ball into the path of Mata. The Spaniard took a touch and teed up Moses, but he took the shot early and fired high over the bar into the Stretford End.
At the other end, meanwhile, the warning signs remained, and a teasing Phil Jones cross from the right had a fraction too much pace on the delivery for the arriving Anderson and the ball was allowed to run harmlessly out of play.
It was the Blues seeing more of the ball, and as the half-hour mark approached Ba fizzed a strike marginally wide of Lindegaard’s far post after cutting in from the left-hand side.
United’s biggest threat for much of the first half had stemmed from their crosses from wide areas, and Cech had to be alert to punch away another dangerous ball, this time from Ryan Giggs, with Van Persie ready to pounce.
Having performed well for much of the opening period, we appeared to lack a cutting edge in the final third, with moves regularly breaking down in and around the United penalty area, and the physical contest between Ba and the two United centre-backs – Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic – was developing into an entertaining one.
Four minutes before the break Van Persie went close, racing on to a Giggs pass and steering it beyond Cech, only for the ball to drop the wrong side of the post for the Dutchman, much to our relief.
Oscar then drove an effort narrowly wide for the Blues as the youngster attempted to open the scoring for the third successive league game before Cech saved well from a Van Persie header.
As the players headed back inside for half-time, there was a frustration we hadn’t capitalised on our early dominance.
Both sides emerged for the second half with no changes to personnel, and it was Chelsea who had the first sight of goal, Moses’ cross turned behind for a corner as Ba looked to meet it at the near post, and minutes later we were appealing for a penalty.
As the ball was worked out to David Luiz on the right-hand side of the box, the Brazilian evaded the challenge of Giggs only to have his shirt pulled by the Welshman. Howard Webb gave the United man the benefit of the doubt, and while replays appeared to prove there was a fair amount of contact, the incident itself took place just outside the penalty area.
The hosts appeared content to sit deep and hit us on the break, and they came close to profiting from one such passage of play. Jones was released by Anderson, but with time on his side, and an opportunity to take the shot on, he opted to cross, putting far too much weight on his ball which was intended for Van Persie but ran out of play for a goal-kick.
Shortly before the hour United made a double substitution, replacing Anderson and Cleverley with Alexander Buttner and Wayne Rooney, but there remained no sign of any action on the Chelsea bench.
Rooney’s first contribution was to surrender possession on the halfway line, allowing Ramires to maraud into a dangerous position. The Brazilian had Ba up in support but, under pressure, he was unable to pick out the run of his team-mate and United cleared.
With 15 minutes left to play Benitez made his first switch of the afternoon, introducing Torres at the expense of Moses, and a minute later we should have been in front. Lampard delivered an exquisite ball in from the edge of the penalty area, but unfortunately for us the man coming on to it was Mata – one of the smallest players on the pitch – and he was unable to find the connection that would surely have given us the lead.
After making his entrance, Torres immediately took up a position wide on the left, and it was following good work out wide by the substitute we were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box after Mata was fouled.
David Luiz was the player entrusted with taking the kick, but having developed a habit of scoring goals of the spectacular variety in recent weeks, he was unable to reproduce a strike of similar note and fired wide.
With four minutes left on the clock, however, and with the game heading for a stalemate, the Blues scored a priceless goal.
Picking the ball up from deep, Ramires drove forward before rolling inside to Oscar, whose first-time ball found Mata; the Chelsea number 10, so often our saviour over the course of the season, controlled it with his first touch and fired his strike into the back of the net via the aid of the post, sending the travelling hordes in the far corner delirious.
The contest had taken a while to heat up, but moments later frustrations boiled over and after kicking out at David Luiz as the pair tussled for possession, Rafael was shown a red card.
It hadn’t been a fiery encounter and, in truth, there wasbarely a bad challenge to speak of, but the United defender had left Webb with little choice and was forced off early.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, David Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Lampard (c); Oscar, Mata (Ake 89), Moses (Torres 75); Ba.
Unused substitutes: Turnbull, Ferreira, Terry, Cahill, Benayoun.
Scorer Mata 86
Booked David Luiz 85
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Evans, Vidic, Evra; Jones, Anderson (Rooney 67); Valencia (Hernandez 89), Cleverley (Buttner 67), Giggs; Van Persie
Unused substitutes: De Gea, Ferdinand, Scholes, Kagawa.
Booked Vidic 51, Jones 80
Sent off Rafael 89
Referee Howard Webb