Everybody knows the maths.Prior to kick-off, Chelsea are three points behind Manchester United, and the two sides are level on goal difference. A win for them this afternoon will put them top of the table with two matches of the Premier League season left to play. There is perhaps something inevitable the fact that Manchester United’s enigmatic season would come down to this. For every performance like that at Arsenal last week, there has been one like the double-header swatting aside of Schalke 04 in the Champions League. Whether the Premier League trophy ends up in London or Manchester at the end of this season will probably come down to which Manchester United team turns out at Old Trafford this afternoon.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have ridden their luck – the goal that probably didn’t cross the line against Tottenham Hotspur last week, for example – and have ground out five wins in a row to lift themselves back into contention at the top of the table. They are, it hardly seems worth mentioning, plenty capable of challenging Manchester United at Old Trafford. Yet this match, somehow, doesn’t feel quite as intoxicating as a match like this being played at this point of the season would normally do. There has been plenty of other Premier League interest already today – a knockabout Black Country derby between Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion and a defeat for Arsenal at Stoke City which more or less wiped away the last of the residue that still consituted their championship hopes – to almost make this match feel like just another Premier League match.

To almost make it feel like one, but not quite, though. As the two teams take the pitch, Old Trafford is a cacophony of noise, a visual and aural metaphor for what any visiting team has to overcome in order to return home with anything. And within one, single, solitary minute, the metaphor has been replaced with the almost absurdly literal. Manchester United kick-off and, after thirty-six seconds, they have the lead. Park Ji-Sung slips the ball through the Chelsea defence and Javier Hernandez races onto the ball, controls it and slips the ball tidily past Petr Cech. Hernandez, who was kneeling on the half-way line in prayer before kick-off, may have to claim divine interception for such an early opportunity.

If Chelsea are shell-shocked, Manchester United are playing with the fluidity and confidence to indicate that they have already forgotten events at The Emirates Stadium last weekend. They are overrunning the Chelsea midfield and, with a record that has seen them drop just two points at home all season, it already feels as if this match is a done deal. Wayne Rooney’s shot from distance pulls a fine save from Petr Cech. A second goal is coming, and after twenty-three minutes it comes when Ryan Giggs crosses from the left and Nemanja Vidic heads the ball down into the ground, and into the roof of the net to double their lead.

If the reborn ambition that Chelsea had held of somehow holding onto their Premier League championship had held some of the characteristics of a mirage, the second goal washes quite possibly washes away the mental image that Carlo Ancelotti may have allowed himself to dream of over the last few weeks or so. Manchester United are completely in control and making Chelsea look like just another regiment of Premier League’s cannon fodder. They do manage chances of their own – Ivanovic overhead kicks into the side-netting barely a minute after Vidic’s goal, for example – but Manchester United look completely in control. They have one hand on the Premier League championship.

Manchester United, however, remain enigmatic and Chelsea start the second half in a more aggressive manner than the way in which they ended the first. Opportunities – not real, serious, goal-threatening chances, but chinks of light, glimmers of something approaching an alternate reality – start to come their way whilst, at the other end of the pitch, there is a huge shout for handball that leaves Old Trafford ringing with boos for minutes. Midway through the second half, though, Chelsea find a way back into the match. Ramires crosses from the right, Ivanocic heads the ball down and Frank Lampard pokes the ball past Van Der Saar and into the corner of the net.

Within a minute, Chelsea’s work is almost undone when Hernandez scampers to the touchline and pulls the ball back for Wayne Rooney, whose shot is spectacularly blocked by Alex. For desperation for a second goal, though, the half-chances start to dry up again and Manchester United hold on with relative comfort. They have a further opportunity for a third goal with five minutes to play when Hernandez heads over from five yards out. Chelsea’s final chance comes with a couple of minutes to play, when the ball falls to Fernando Torres on the edge of the penalty area but, at an angle to the goal, Torres can only wrap his foot around the ball and send it a yard or two wide of Van Dr Saar’s right-hand post. Torres, of course, broke his duck a couple of weeks ago. Chelsea supporters will now have to wait and see whether it the goal or the drought turns out to be the norm for his time at Stamford Bridge.

This match, then, played out as a microcosm for the Premier League season in a more general sense. Manchester United’s early lead should possibly have seen the team to go on and win by a handsome margin. They managed, however, to make the closing periods of it closer – on paper, at least – than they perhaps needed to be. It has been a season of smoke and mirrors in the Premier League, though, and for all the talk of surprise and excitement, it will now almost certainly end with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal filling the top three places (and in that order), with the smaller clubs crowded around the bottom of the table. Manchester United are deserved champions, but this year’s Premier League has turned out to be the same story as usual, only slightly re-scripted.

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