GIANFRANCO ZOLA denied Manchester United the chance to return to the top of the Premiership after a tense and often ill-tempered contest between two heavyweight contenders for the title ended with honours even at Old Trafford last night.
The little Italian grabbed an equaliser Chelsea well deserved with seven minutes remaining, after Andy Cole had put United ahead in first-half stoppage time with a typical predatory strike. In the event, had Chelsea won, then United could not have put forward any serious complaints, such was the superiority of the London side in the closing stages. Indeed, in the dying moments a long-range effort unleashed with considerable power by the wing-back Celestine Babayaro clipped the outside of a post.
It was enough for Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea's manager, to confess to a degree of disappointment that his side did not return home with three points, but he was delighted, nonetheless, with another demonstration of the new-found resilience that has carried Chelsea through a run of 16 matches without defeat.
At one time, given the unfavourable circumstances they faced with both Franck Leboeuf (suspended) and Marcel Desailly (injured) missing from their defence, they might not have had the backbone to recover once Cole had drawn first blood. But this is a different Chelsea, full of intricate skills but now with a hunger to fight for rewards. The return fixture against United, at Stamford Bridge 12 days from now, promises to be highly significant in the context of the title race. Should Chelsea win that one, they will draw great psychological strength.
Last night, the United manager Alex Ferguson was only too willing to accept a point from the first exchange, even though his team were denied an opportunity to make victory almost certain in the second half when Dwight Yorke was hauled down by Bernard Lambourde as he attempted to race clear. Lambourde, one of five Chelsea players booked before half-time, escaped unpunished by the referee, Graham Barber.
United's heavy recent workload persuaded Ferguson to start with both Ryan Giggs and David Beckham confined to the bench as the United manager rotated his squad even more vigorously than had Vialli, retaining only five of those who started last Saturday's match at Tottenham. Yorke and Cole, rested at White Hart Lane, returned to continue their potent partnership up front.
United could, and should, have gone ahead after six minutes through just that combination. Yorke headed Jesper Blomqvist's deep cross firmly back into the Chelsea goalmouth only for Cole to miskick when it seemed scarcely possible not to score.
United were eager to strike before Chelsea could settle into their game and were prepared to use whatever means available to knock their opponents off their stride, literally in the case of Graeme Le Saux. The England defender was felled first by Nicky Butt and then Jaap Stam within a matter of moments, suffering the first of a number of heavy knocks that led to his substitution before half-time. Butt, who appeared to use an elbow as a weapon almost under the nose of a strangely unresponsive linesman, was fortunate to escape punishment.
Inevitably, in a highly-charged atmosphere, the referee had plenty of other opportunities to reach for his yellow card. Lambourde, Dan Petrescu, Albert Ferrer, Roberto Di Matteo and - surprise, surprise - Dennis Wise were all cautioned before half-time much to the obvious displeasure of Vialli, who wagged a finger at the Hertfordshire official as the teams left the field.
Wise's foul on Paul Scholes exposed Chelsea to a free-kick well within Beckham range had he been on the field. Instead, Stam delivered the shot, tamely, into the base of Chelsea's wall.
Not until the 39th minute, when Zola broke free on the left only to provide Peter Schmeichel with a comfortable save, did Chelsea create a chance, but they had controlled enough of the possession to have ended the opening half on level terms. However, in stoppage time, Cole displayed his sharp eye for a half chance, pouncing to drive the ball wide of Ed de Goey after Butt's initial shot had rebounded to him off the leg of a Chelsea defender.
Strangely enough, after feeling the sharp edge of Vialli's tongue, Mr Barber booked two United players early in the second period but enraged Ferguson when he allowed Lambourde to escape after dragging down Yorke. The United striker, struggling with a groin strain, was then replaced by Beckham.
Chelsea were at their most impressive in the closing stages, forcing United to defend desperately at times and it was no surprise that they should eventually get back on level terms at the end of an intricate move in which Gustavo Poyet supplied the final, decisive pass for Zola to cleverly lift the ball over Schmeichel's body and secure a thoroughly merited point.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown, G Neville, Stam, Irwin; Butt, Keane, Scholes (Sheringham, 89), Blomqvist (Giggs, 77); Yorke (Beckham, 61), Cole. Substitutes not used: Johnsen, P Neville.
Chelsea (3-5-2): De Goey; Duberry, Lambourde, Le Saux (Poyet, 44); Ferrer, Petrescu, Wise, Di Matteo, Babayaro; Zola, Flo. Substitutes not used: Goldbaek, Hitchcock (gk), Nicholls, Morris.
Referee: G Barber (Hertfordshire).
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