MANCHESTER, England (AP):
Chelsea capitalised on a pedestrian performance by Manchester United to beat the English Premier League champions 1-0 yesterday and take control of the battle for Champions League qualification.
Juan Mata's 87th-minute shot deflected off the inside leg of Phil Jones and found the corner to settle a dull match at Old Trafford that ended with the sending off of United defender Rafael da Silva for a petulant kick on David Luiz.
Chelsea strengthened their grip on third place and can virtually seal a place in Europe's top competition next season by beating fifth-place Tottenham at home on Wedneday. Arsenal are a point behind Chelsea, and Spurs a further two adrift.
"We are in the driving seat now," said Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez, who got the better of longtime counterpart Alex Ferguson, as he did in the FA Cup quarter-finals last month. "If we can win (against Tottenham), we can be there (in the Champions League)."
DOWN TO THE WIRE
While the race for a top-four finish could yet go down to the wire, Everton's European hopes were virtually ended by only drawing 0-0 at Liverpool in the 220th Merseyside derby at Anfield.
Everton, which haven't won at Anfield in 14 years, can at least take solace from the fact they are likely to finish above their neighbours for the second straight season - something the blue half of Merseyside haven't achieved since 1937.
Everton need one win from their final two games to guarantee being the city's top team, but are now five points behind Spurs with two matches left.
The fifth match of the season between old foes United and Chelsea was comfortably the worst, only coming to life in the final few minutes when Jones unwittingly turned in Mata's angled shot before Rafael was shown a straight card for a challenge on Luiz that sparked a melée between both sets of players.
Ferguson was angry at Luiz's reaction to Rafael's challenge near the corner flag, accusing the Brazil defender of play-acting and going down like a "dying swan".
Luiz appeared to be smiling as he lay apparently injured on the ground, increasing United's sense of injustice.
Ferguson was just as unhappy with his team's laboured display, with his decision to rest Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and David de Gea and give some fringe players an opportunity backfiring. The team already appeared to have turned its sights to next season, failing to score at home for the first time in 67 matches.
"We expected a better performance," Ferguson said. "It was difficult for players coming in. Chelsea had everything to play for."
Playing their 65th match of a gruelling campaign, Chelsea were still more sprightly than United and went close through Oscar, whose first-half shot struck the post, before benefiting from a late touch of fortune.
"It's a very important win. It was like a final," Mata said. "We deserve to play in the Champions League next season. If we play together like we did today, I think we can do it."
United cannot now beat their previous best points total in a season of 92, but they are still 13 points ahead of City.
The biggest flashpoint in an otherwise uneventful Merseyside derby was a decision to rule out Everton defender Sylvain Distin's headed goal in the second half after an apparent foul on Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina. There appeared minimal contact with Everton striker Victor Anichebe, however.
"You people (media) are quick to remind me I've not won at Anfield, but if you don't get any decisions at Anfield, it makes it very difficult to win," Everton manager David Moyes said. "It is quite a regular occurrence when you come here."
Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher kept a clean sheet in his 30th and final derby, before retiring at the end of the season. His team is five points behind Everton and almost assured of finishing the campaign seventh.
Barclays premier league review
FULHAM 2 READING 4
GOALS:- FULHAM: RUIZ 70th, 77th. READING: ROBSON-KANU 12th PEN, 62nd; LE FONDRE 75th; KARACAN 83rd.
Reading boss Nigel Adkins tasted a first win in charge of the Royals as his relegated side beat Fulham. Hal Robson-Kanu scored from the spot after being fouled by John Arne Riise to put the Royals ahead and added a second with a left-foot curler. Bryan Ruiz pulled one back for Fulham, but Adam Le Fondre's close-range effort added a third for Reading. A Ruiz header gave the visitors another scare, but Jem Karacan's late strike secured a Royals win.
NORWICH CITY 1
ASTON VILLA 2
GOALS:- NORWICH: HOLT 74th PEN. VILLA: AGBONLAHOR 55th, 89th.
Gabriel Agbonlahor scored a last-minute winner as Aston Villa took a giant stride towards safety with a win that increases Norwich's relegation fears. Villa took the lead when Agbonlahor drilled a 25-yard shot into the corner. Grant Holt drew Norwich level from the penalty spot after Robert Snodgrass had been brought down by Joe Bennett. But Agbonlahor calmly finished off Ashley Westwood's pass to move Villa five points clear of the drop zone, with Norwich two behind.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0
GOAL:- ARSENAL: WALCOTT 1st.
Theo Walcott scored the fastest Barclays Premier League goal of the season to sink QPR and send Arsenal into third place. Walcott struck after 20 seconds, latching on to Mikel Arteta's deft pass and firing past Rob Green. Arsenal dominated the early stages and went close to doubling their lead when Green clawed a low Walcott snap shot on to his post. QPR improved after the break, but the closest they came to a reply was when Wojciech Szczesny denied Loic Remy.
SWANSEA CITY 0
MANCHESTER CITY 0
Manchester City have still to score at the Liberty Stadium after this tame goalless draw with Swansea. They had the better of the chances, with substitute Edin Dzeko missing an open goal with five minutes remaining. But Roberto Mancini's FA Cup finalists, who go seven points ahead of Chelsea in the league, could not find a way past Michel Vorm in a low-key encounter. The Swans have not won a game since their 1-0 victory over Newcastle on March 2, but stay in ninth place.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 1
GOAL:- TOTTENHAM: BALE 86th.
Gareth Bale produced another moment of magic to keep Tottenham on course for next season's Champions League and leave his former club, Southampton, still uncertain of Barclays Premier League survival. With four minutes left, the players' Player of the Year and writers' Footballer of the Year darted infield and, from 25 yards, crashed a rasping shot beyond Southampton goalkeeper Artur Boruc.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION 2
WIGAN ATHLETIC 3
GOALS:- WBA: LONG 29th; McAULEY 50th. WIGAN: KONE 39th; McARTHUR 58th; McMANAMAN 80th.
Callum McManaman's late winner gave Wigan Athletic a vital victory at West Bromwich Albion and kept their hopes of making another dramatic late escape from relegation alive. Wigan, who started the day five points adrift of safety with a game in hand, trailed twice at The Hawthorns, but maintained their nerve and composure to close the gap on Sunderland and Newcastle United. Shane Long put West Brom ahead, but Arouna Kone headed Wigan level before the interval. Gareth McAuley restored the Baggies' lead, but Wigan were back on terms again when James McArthur headed in moments after coming on as substitute.