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Chelsea vs. Manchester United: A game to forget in a forgettable season for all

England’s three biggest clubs must have hoped for more than this from 2013.

Mike Hewitt

Back in the more innocent, more hopeful (more sunshiny) days of August, this was a season that promised much for many. For Chelsea, 2012-13 was a new dawn founded on the spoils of gloriously unlikely European triumph: a Champions League winner -- their own -- was in charge and the world's hottest young creative talent had signed up to build a new legacy. In Manchester, United had acquired the league's best player and the Bundesliga's best(ish) pintsized pointer to bolster a side that lost the league in its final second last year while City, well, they had that second.

In these unseasonable springy blusters, those hopes have yielded to a less shiny reality. Chelsea's one-nil victory over Manchester United, early on Monday, a game that pleased no one -- especially the neutral (although she or he may have raised the smallest of smiles/glasses when Ashley Cole was forced to withdraw), was a case in point.

In West London, Roman Abramovich has "gone too far this time" in appointing Rafa Benitez to replace double club legend Roberto di Matteo. Although it may have indirectly led to today's result and, thus, to a Wembley appearance, the appointment of known knock-out specialist Benitez probably also ensured that Chelsea would win only one of their weekend's two games and therefore that they would lose to Southampton. Which they did. And that is a bit of a problem for Chelsea. They may win the FA Cup and they may win the Europa League -- they play Rubin Kazan in the quarter final on Thursday -- but if that comes at the cost of qualifying for the Champions League -- they are currently just two points clear of Arsenal, enjoying a Gervinho-Fabianski-inspired resurgence -- then the summer of 2013 will be an austere, circumspect affair for Chelsea's fans. If they don't win the FA Cup and the Europa league or finish in the top four then they'll want their Chelsea back again. 4 RLZ this time. They will, at least, have gotten Rafa Out.

For Manchester City -- not involved in today's game but lucky enough to face its victors in the semi-final -- 2012-13 has just been rubbish. That semi-final, and the final to which it could lead, is all that is left for the light blues to play for. Embarrassing in the Champions League and woefully off title-pace, even if City do manage to beat Chelsea and then somehow Wigan -- who just do not lose games after the clocks change -- and so win the cup they will only have repeated 2011's achievements and in a model built on progress regression is worse than nothing.

United, of course, have the title right where Giovanni Trapattoni once advised some baffled journos to keep their cats. After last season's disappointment, that of course is not nothing. It is little, though, compared to what was on offer beforeNani leapt deftly from the Old Trafford turf and piled his studs into Alvaro Arbeloa's ribcage. At that point on that night in March, Sir Alex Ferguson was looking at a dynasty-defining, subscript season. Twelve points clear in the league, about to play an FA Cup quarter final at home and 2-1 ahead on aggregate to a tired looking Real Madrid, the treble -- fourteen years after it was first achieved -- looked on again for a squad similarly constituted by a blend of youth and experience (and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes). That won't happen now. Instead, United fans can look ahead to a shortish series of insipid or semi-sipid -- there is a Manchester derby next week -- encounters that they'll mostly win 1-0.

And so edition 2012-13 of the Barclays Premier League has come to this. By the first of April, the league's biggest clubs have only footnotes to attend to. Its major domestic business has been taken care of -- by United of course but, still: the continental agenda will be played out elsewhere and by others. Which leaves a not-particularly-edifying scrap for fourth as the sum of business at the "elite" end. Thank goodness for Paolo di Canio.

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