Liverpool had closed the gap with United in fourth place – the final Champions League qualification spot – to just three points after an upturn in form in recent weeks and needed a Chelsea victory to ensure the race went down to the final day.
But United heaped more misery on the Blues and beleaguered manager Frank Lampard, who has endured a torrid return to the dugout since taking over as caretaker manager in April with just one win in 10 games – and eight defeats.
The match got off to the best possible start for Erik ten Hag’s side as Casemiro opened the scoring after just six minutes with a header from a free kick.
Chelsea, though, showed signs of life and spurned three glorious chances to equalize through Mykhailo Mudryk, Kai Havertz and Conor Gallagher. The team was made to pay for those costly misses as Anthony Martial doubled the lead on the stroke of halftime.
Bruno Fernandes’ penalty and a tap in from Marcus Rashford following a capitulation in the Chelsea defense added gloss to the scoreline, before João Félix scored a late consolation goal – the first United had conceded at home in more than 11 hours.
After only qualifying for this season’s Europa League with an sixth-place finish last term, Ten Hag said it was “important” for United to return to European football’s premier competition.
“This club belongs in the Champions League,” the Dutchman told Sky Sports after the game. “But it’s not easy in the Premier League, it’s a tough competition. A lot [of teams] compete for the positions – I think seven or eight clubs – so it’s a massive performance when you get this done.
“We want to win and we showed the winning attitude. You can see Chelsea has outstanding players and also caused us problems, but we were really good on the counterattack. We scored four in the end, but we should have scored more – but, I’ll be honest, they could have scored as well.”
Securing Champions League football is crucial to ten Hag’s rebuild at United, with the team putting in some brilliant performances during the season but still suffering from inconsistency.
Ten Hag admitted United still “have to work on the squad” this summer and the lure of Champions League football will no doubt make that job easier.
Also crucial to the team’s success will be holding onto Marcus Rashford, whose contract expires at the end of next season.
The England forward has enjoyed a career best season with 30 goals in all competitions, the first United player to reach that milestone since Robin van Persie in 2012/13, and Ten Hag said the club is currently “working on” a new contract with Rashford.
“I have a good feeling about that,” he said. “Marcus wants to stay, we want him to stay, so we have to find it [an agreement].”
With one piece of silverware, the Carabao Cup, already in the trophy cabinet for this season, United has the chance to double its haul for the season in the FA Cup final on Sunday, June 3.
Two trophies and Champions League football would certainly constitute a successful season after the club’s recent struggles and the team will have the added motivation of preventing Manchester City from winning the treble and matching United’s feat from 1998/99, should Pep Guardiola’s team win the Champions League final.