Oliver Holt's Big Match Verdict: Chelsea's decision to wait for Torres to fire sends their season up in flames
Chelsea perished atop a bonfire of their own vanities at Old Trafford last night.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti insisted on sticking with new £50m striker Fernando Torres when every scrap of evidence and logic was screaming at him to pick Didier Drogba.
Torres made a fool of his boss by playing like a drain. And then Drogba embarrassed him, too, by performing like Torres multiplied by ten when he replaced the Spain forward at half time and scoring a superb individual goal.
If a train of events could have been invented to make Ancelotti look like a weak manager in thrall to Roman Abramovich, this was it. His position as boss of Chelsea, whose season is now over, is hanging by a thread.
His team's cursed obsession with the Champions League burned to cinders for another year and for the team's old guard, time is now beginning to run out for them to lift the trophy they have coveted more than any other.
The club is adrift in a sea of confusion and hard choices lie ahead. Drogba will almost certainly leave in the summer. Other veterans will be eased out.
The reason for their exit last night came down to this: Ancelotti persisted with his new toy even though it became obvious some time ago that the new toy didn't come with the right batteries.
And the choice cost Chelsea everything. They were the better side in the first half but Torres played like football's equivalent of a dead end. A pass to him was like driving up a cul-de-sac.
Ancelotti set the team up around him but still he played like a little boy lost, a man who simply cannot relocate the form that once made him such a favourite at Liverpool.
Once he had picked Torres, he should have selected Yossi Benayoun too to give himself the best chance of unlocking the former Liverpool forward's skills. But was not bold enough to do that.
By the time Ancelotti finally recognised the error of his ways at the interval, the opportunity had all but disappeared.
Drogba was full of life and strength and confidence and caused more discomfort to Ferdinand and Vidic in his first five minutes on the pitch than Torres had done in the entire first half.
Drogba underlined Ancelotti's error by dragging Chelsea back into the tie with a 77th minute equaliser but Chelsea were down to ten men by then and Ji-Sung Park scored United's second of the night less than a minute later to put the tie out of reach.
The cold hard facts were these: as the game kicked off, the Chelsea career of Torres amounted to the damning statistic that he had gone 648 minutes and 10 games without scoring for his new club. Now it is 693 and 11.
For that reason and for many others, the stakes were particularly high for Ancelotti last night. That fact was underlined when Abramovich appeared in the directors' box with his retinue a few minutes before kick off looking grimly expectant.
Chelsea were the better side in the opening stages and when Malouda danced through the United defence and laid off a pass to Lampard, Lampard hit his shot too close to Van der Sar when he should have scored.
United looked inhibited by their lead in the first half, more scared of losing it than intent on extending it, and Chelsea fed off their uncertainty.
But still Torres played like the weak link. Ramires and Malouda were superb in midfield and Lampard and Anelka played with real menace and fluidity in more advanced roles.
But too often, things broke down when Torres became involved, either because he was simply not on the same wavelength as his teammates or because his chronic lack of confidence betrayed itself in him wasting the ball or taking too many touches.
Again and again the thought kept occurring: what if Drogba was playing? What if Drogba was there to benefit from Chelsea's fine approach play and advantage in possession?
Time and again, Ferdinand beat Torres to balls played into the Chelsea striker's feet, balls that Drogba would have had the strength to hold up and lay off.
The suspicion was that, with Drogba in the starting line up, Chelsea would be going in at half time at least back on level terms in the tie.
Instead, they went in one goal down when United scored a beautifully worked goal through Hernandez on the stroke of half time.
That's what happens when a team plays with a proper attacking partnership with two players like Rooney and Hernandez who are in form and who relish playing alongside each other.
Ancelotti accepted that in the end. When Torres reappeared after the interval, it was in a tracksuit. If he had worn it all night, who knows, Chelsea might have been looking forward to the semi-finals now.