Perhaps Jose Mourinho got his excuses in early. He had said Manchester United’s season should not be judged just on the FA Cup. After recording their highest finish since Alex Ferguson retired, it won’t be.
Nor will Chelsea’s; not after failing to qualify for the Uefa Champions League. Yet what could have been a wretched campaign for them ended on a high, with a trophy and courtesy of a victory forged by defensive determination and the brilliance of Eden Hazard. If it is goodbye to Antonio Conte, it is a fine way to go. He confounded expectations by winning a first major cup as a manager, just as Mourinho experienced the unwanted surprise of losing a final in England for the first time.
This was a reminder that Mourinho’s United remain a frustratingly inconsistent beast, yet to develop the characteristics the relentless winners he coached at Chelsea exuded. United exerted statistical dominance but paid the price for a drab, unambitious first-half showing.
It also illustrated much of what has been best about Conte's Chelsea. They had been shambolic at Newcastle United six days earlier, but they rediscovered their resolve. Last season they allied strategic excellence with a capacity to outperform what may be more talented teams. They did so once again. With the suspicion the Italian will leave, this may have been a valedictory display of Conte-ness.
It is rare United have so much of the ball against a top team but, with Thibaut Courtois a reliable last line of defence, and Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger excelling in the three-man rearguard, Chelsea protected their clean sheet with admirable steadfastness.
Conte adopted the 3-5-1-1 formation he has tended to use against elite opponents. The emphasis, once again, was on solidity. Caution was the watchword for both managers. Hazard had company on his 300th Chelsea game, with Ander Herrera reprising the man-marking job he did on the Belgian last season.
The ploy met with success at Old Trafford 13 months ago and rather less at Wembley. On Saturday, Mourinho’s masterplan backfired, with decisive consequences. Hazard was ebullient and excellent, as though inspired to greater heights by United’s attempts to subdue him. Twice, he succeeded in escaping Herrera and isolating himself against the more cumbersome Phil Jones. First he skipped away from the Englishman to drill in a low shot that David de Gea repelled. Then, when released by Cesc Fabregas, he was about to shoot when a sliding Jones upended him. Penalty. Conte urged referee Michael Oliver to send Jones off. Hazard applied a different punishment by rolling the penalty past De Gea.
United’s response unconvincing. They end the season with one goal in their final four games and, while they had 18 attempts at Wembley, few were clear-cut. Jones had a chance of redemption on the stroke of half time. Ashley Young found him with a deep cross. The defender headed wide.
Thereafter Courtois was defiant, making two stops in quick succession from Marcus Rashford, who got a comparatively rare start as the main striker. Mourinho held Romelu Lukaku back until the last 20 minutes after deeming his top scorer not fit to start but United looked a lesser side without the Belgian.
One supposed superstar, Paul Pogba, had one of his more frustrating days. Another, Alexis Sanchez, scored in two FA Cup finals for Arsenal. He had the ball in the net in a third, finishing from close range after Courtois parried Jones’ header. He was immediately ruled offside, however.
It did not reflect well on United that the left-back Young seemed their most dangerous player. Others underperformed. He did not.
Initially so stodgy, United at least displayed more urgency in the second half. Chelsea retreated still further, though they fashioned one glorious chance on the counter-attack to seal victory. N’Golo Kante surged forwards, setting up Marcos Alonso, who was denied by a superb save from De Gea. Victor Moses’ cross then hit Young’s arm, but there was no second penalty for Chelsea. They did not need one. Conte may head off into the sunset. First, however, he could cavort in the Wembley sunshine.