United's manager, Alex Ferguson, had to be asked to return to the dug- out by the fourth official, Gary Willard, after going a few yards on to the pitch in anger at a tackle from behind by Franck Leboeuf on Teddy Sheringham.
A frustrated Gianfranco Zola was cautioned for Chelsea, along with Dennis Wise, who was involved in a testy running battle with United's Nicky Butt. David Beckham was also cautioned for berating the referee, Steve Dunn of Bristol, and insisting that Wise had stamped on Butt. Andy Cole made the card count 3-3.
"Referees have a difficult job but he didn't handle it well. I thought Butt was unfairly treated," said a now controlled Ferguson after the match. "Just before half-time, it could have got out of hand but thankfully it cooled down." The same could be said of a dispute between Ferguson and the Sky TV pundit Andy Gray, who upset Ferguson recently by saying on television that a penalty denied Barnsley in an FA Cup tie would have been awarded for United. The pair initially exchanged frank views when they encountered each other at the ground, but soon made up.
The only cloud on the horizon for United, for whom Paul Scholes and Ronnie Johnsen were outstanding, was a back injury to Gary Pallister, which could rule him out of Wednesday's European Cup quarter- final first leg in Monaco.
United will go to the Principality in good heart after a third successive Premiership win, secured by Phil Neville's first goal for the club. "Our concentration and determination were good," Ferguson said. "The goal was the one real moment of composure in a game where it was hard to find."
Of the Monaco match, he said: "It is a major, major game for this club. I think we deserve to do well. My players showed by their performances in the Champions' League that they are capable of winning it."
Chelsea, by contrast, are in a slump as they head for Seville to play Real Betis in the Cup- Winners' Cup after losing five of their last eight league games. "We have to keep going and try to finish second to reach the Champions' League," said the Chelsea player-coach, Gianluca Vialli, aware of the danger of his team resting on their laurels as Coca-Cola Cup finalists. His side are 14 points behind United.
Liverpool's pursuit of a Champions' League place also suffered a setback as John Gregory had an immediate, and unlikely, impact as Aston Villa's manager. That Villa should have beaten the Merseysiders 2-1 at Villa Park was not so remarkable in itself; that Stan Collymore should score twice was.
Blackburn moved above Liverpool into second place by beating Leicester 5-3. At Ewood Park, the main striking role was played, more predictably, by Chris Sutton, whose hat-trick helped put Rovers five goals ahead before they let Leicester back into the game.
Jan-Age Fjortoft scored twice to earn Barnsley a 2-1 home win over Wimbledon that lifted them two places off the bottom to sit between Tottenham and Bolton, who meet today at White Hart Lane. Crystal Palace took their place after losing 3-0 at home to Coventry City.
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