With his contract situation unresolved, Joe Cole could well end his seven-year association with Chelsea in the summer. There could be no better parting gift to leave them with than the piece of skill he produced in the 20th minute yesterday. It was worthy of winning a Premier League title. Cole was covered by Patrice Evra and had his back to goal when he met a left-wing cross from the similarly impressive Florent Malouda, who had worked his way past three Manchester United defenders. But an improvised backheeled flick took the ball past Edwin van der Sar.
The goal was only the second of a season for Cole, but ever so vital, not only for his club, but for himself with his future uncertain. He has largely been a peripheral figure since the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti. The England international has rarely completed 90 minutes and often been taken off without even a cursory glance from the Italian coach, who has demanded more effort rather than entertainment from his players. Cole combined both elements with the opening strike that was the foundation for Chelsea's success at Old Trafford.
"There's no doubting what I can do, but need to it consistently until the end of the season," said Cole afterwards. "Hopefully I can keep my place. I want to be part of a team that can become champions again." In their early dominance, he almost set up a second shortly after the break when he slipped through a pass to send Paulo Ferreira clear. But the Portuguese right-back has not scored in the league for Chelsea and it showed as the poked effort was neither a shot to trouble Van der Sar, nor a pass good enough to find the supporting Nicolas Anelka.
When Cole was replaced in the 73rd minute for Salomon Kalou, he left with a job well done and Ancelotti's approval with a handshake. Six minutes later, the Chelsea manager also saw his team selection vindicated. Kalou made a darting run and threaded the ball through to Didier Drogba, his fellow substitute as Ancelotti kept faith with the side that annihilated Aston Villa 7-1 last weekend. Offside he was, but Drogba did not dither and powered a venomous shot high past Van der Sar for his 31st goal of the season.
The finale was far more nervous for Chelsea than it should have been after Nani crossed from the left and Petr Cech could only push the ball on to Federico Macheda and into the unguarded net. United's performance lacked the impetus of those that had made them favourites for the title. The obvious reason was Wayne Rooney's absence. Dimitar Berbatov was in the lone front role and the burden of responsibility appeared too much. A couple of chances were spurned and you could not help but wonder how Rooney would have done if he had been out there.
Ryan Giggs swung over a cross from the right, Berbatov rose well, but steered the header past the post. Then, in the first minute of injury time, Neville's cross fell invitingly for him on the volley 12 yards out. But the finish was tame. Chelsea now have the advantage, confidence and the factor of not being in the Champions League. The disappointment of losing to Inter Milan in the last 16 might have hurt, but in a way it has helped their domestic challenge.
Ferguson admitted United looked "leggy" after their European exertions in midweek, when they lost to Bayern Munich. Chelsea looked fresher as Malouda agreed. "When you play a Champions league game, you give a lot of energy and you could see it when we started the game," he said. "We knew if we started with a high intensity we could cause them some problems. For us, this means a lot after the bad week we had [when we went out of the Champions League]. We needed to react."
Ferguson now needs United to do exactly the same. * Compiled by Alam Khan, with agencies