At its breathless conclusion, United had extended their unbeaten league run to 15 matches, retaining the top position courtesy of yet another stumble by Liverpool. As winter turns to spring, it seems that United's passage to the title is becoming a rite. Having all but dashed Arsenal's title aspirations, yesterday at Stamford Bridge they dented those of another capital club.
What is it about Chelsea? No matter the changing and improving personnel, the flatter-to-deceive image still dogs them. For half the game they took the breath away - "the most imaginative team in the final third we have played," said the United manager Alex Ferguson - but were left again to rue an inability to see off the opposition. Reprieved, a re-organised United dominated the second half.
"United had to risk and press to get something from the game," said the Chelsea manager, Ruud Gullit, shrugging off the one-half-wonders accusation. "Sometimes you get away with a win. The good thing is a few months ago we would have lost a game like this." Nevertheless, there were echoes of last season when they let an advantage slip in 17 games.
The advantage yesterday came after only two minutes. Dennis Wise played a crossfield pass from the left to Dan Petrescu, he slipped the ball inside to Zola who promptly turned inside Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister before dispatching a crisp, low left-footed shot inside Peter Schmeichel's near post. "Ian Wright, Wright, Wright," taunted the home support. "A fabulous goal," Ferguson acknowledged. "He is a better player than I thought he was. He's got a very good head on him."
It should have been two eight minutes later. United should have had a handball when Eddie Newton intercepted David Beckham's pass but the referee, Gerald Ashby, missed it and Wise broke forward, finding Zola. His ball to Mark Hughes left the Welshman free, but his shot went, weakly, straight at Peter Schmeichel. "I'm glad he tried to place it. It could have been different if he had blasted it," said Ferguson of his former striker.
United, uncharacteristically, were being outmanoeuvred as Zola and Roberto Di Matteo assembled some splendid, perceptive passing football. Ryan Giggs was being dragged infield to counter Chelsea's midfield trio of Di Matteo, Newton and Wise, and Petrescu consequently was enjoying a remarkable freedom on the home side's right flank, whence had come the goal.
At last, after half an hour and having survived a header by Franck Leboeuf over the bar, a shot wide by Di Matteo and one on target by Hughes that Schmeichel beat out, a United still without the subtlety of the suspended Eric Cantona came up with an effective counter-plan - pushing Beckham infield and moving Giggs out to the left flank to pin back Petrescu.
Now the Chelsea flow was interrupted, United served notice just before the interval of what was to follow it. Giggs found Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in space on the left and from his low shot, Kevin Hitchcock was forced into his first real save.
The United cause was further aided five minutes into the second half when Chelsea lost Hitchcock with a shoulder injury, to be replaced by Frode Grodas. The Norwegian goalkeeper immediately made an error of judgement, rushing late from his line to challenge Gary Pallister for Neville's long throw and was fortunate to see his header loop just over the bar. Ronny Johnsen also headed over when well placed.
An equaliser looked only a matter of time and it duly came in spectacular style. Neville surged forward as Chelsea cleared the ball unconvincingly and Frank Sinclair could only head his cross to Beckham, who from an oblique angle some 12 yards out volleyed fiercely into the roof of the net via the underside of the bar.
Thereafter, United might even have poached all three points, with Brian McClair driving just over from 25 yards, Cole heading inches too high and Giggs curling a shot just wide. Overall, however, it was a fair result from a fair old game. "That is why the Premiership is so well known all over the world," said Gullit. "It's great that players like Zola and Beckham offer that something extra."Reuse content