Chelsea have given themselves every chance of ending a campaign full of trials and tribulations on a positive note, with a 1-0 victory over Manchester United meaning that a top-four finish and qualification for the UEFA Champions League is now very much in their hands.
They left it late to snatch the points at Old Trafford, with the final three minutes of a forgettable contest producing considerably more entertainment than the 87 minutes of toil which preceded them.
Blue was ultimately the colour in Manchester, with a lacklustre showing from Sir Alex Ferguson's Red Devils suggesting that a few of those at the Theatre of Dreams already have one foot on the beach after wrapping up the Premier League title at a canter.
John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were named on the bench by Chelsea and Manchester United respectively. The one-time England team-mates fell out over Terry's attack on Ferdinand's brother Anton, with both now reported to be ready to play for their country again.
Ferdinand was joined amongst the Red Devils' substitutes by Paul Scholes, who has been missing since January with a knee injury, Wayne Rooney and David de Gea.
Anders Lindegaard started his first league game since a seven-goal epic at Reading in December, whilst Frank Lampard led a Chelsea side containing Demba Ba, Ashley Cole, Oscar and Juan Mata as Eden Hazard was ruled out with a tight calf.
Manchester United like to make the most of the width they possess within their ranks, with Antonio Valencia once again asked to get chalk on his boots. He did just that, but put in a below-par performance which could leave him sweating on his Red Devils future. Ferguson's men looked to get the ball wide, but saw the final delivery let them down on too many occasions. They also lacked the vision and incision of Michael Carrick in the middle of the park, with Anderson and Tom Cleverley enduring afternoons to forget. United look a much better outfit when Robin van Persie has support alongside him, rather than relying on midfielders to do an attacker's job.
Chelsea set up with their usual sprinkling of creative talent up top, with Demba Ba - as is often the case in the league - asked to plough a lone furrow as a central striker. The Blues were, however, aware of the need to keep things tight and took few risks in pursuit of the points. They set up to keep a clean sheet, with Rafa Benitez placing more emphasis on the need to avoid defeat than the desire to go in search of a win. The Blues were better on the ball than United and stuck with the neat passing game which has served them well at times this season.
Ferguson was the first to turn to his bench, as he made a double change with just over 20 minutes remaining. He introduced Alexander Buttner and Wayne Rooney in an effort to inject some urgency into his troops, with the lacklustre Anderson and Cleverley replaced. Rooney tried to get involved, but found himself caught between the desire to push alongside Van Persie and trying to influence proceedings from a deeper post. Javier Hernandez replaced Valencia in stoppage-time, but made no impact.
Chelsea made just two changes, with Benitez keeping faith with those who have faced a gruelling schedule over recent weeks. With the game lacking quality in the final third, and with chances few and far between, the introduction of Fernando Torres at some stage was inevitable. He replaced Victor Moses 14 minutes from time and helped to provide another outlet up front - and keep United's back four on their toes. Youngster Nathan Ake was thrown on in place of Mata in an effort to kill time towards the end.
Howard Webb had little to do until the closing stages, with the two sides having held each other at arm's length for much of the afternoon without offering any indication that tempers would boil over. He booked Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones for unsporting behaviour and David Luiz was cautioned for airing his disgust at one decision which went against him. It was, however, in the 89th minute that Webb had the biggest call to make, and he ended up flashing a red card in the direction of Rafael. In fairness, he was left with little choice - with United's Brazilian full-back kicking out at countryman Luiz. Rafael was lured into a trap by an elbow from Luiz, with the Chelsea centre-half seen laughing after hitting the deck.
Van Persie was kept relatively quiet by the Chelsea back four, with the Dutchman feeding off scraps for much of the afternoon. His clearest sight of goal came when he was fed by Ryan Giggs, but he tried to turn the ball on with his left foot as the ball came across him and ended up poking well wide. He has had better days, and will have more of them in the future.
Mata has now netted 18 times in all competitions for Chelsea this season and always looked the man most likely to produce a moment of magic on Sunday. He is the one to make the Blues tick in the final third and has taken his game to another level this term with his efforts in front of goal. He was slightly fortunate to see a late strike flick off Phil Jones and into the back of the net, but he offered enough on the day to earn a slice of luck.
Manchester United were always going to struggle to maintain their intensity levels after wrapping up the title and they appear to be going through the motions now. Ferguson offered a number of fringe players an opportunity to impress, but few did. The Scot will now be turning his attention to the summer and possible new recruits, with it clear that United are lacking the strength in depth required to compete on multiple fronts.
Chelsea appear to be on course to book their place at European football's top table, and that will come as a massive relief to all concerned. They too will want to bolster their ranks over the summer, and Champions League football will make it considerably easier for them to entice top talent to Stamford Bridge. There is the promise of more to come from the Blues, but whether another summer of change allows them to unlock that potential remains to be seen.