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James Lawton: Chelsea dig deep to salvage their season and game's dented reputation

Chelsea’s counter-attack was kept up impressively after the break and David Luiz scored with an assurance that must have brought a pang of envy to Fernando Torres

Chelsea got what they most wanted, an injection of life and hope in the grimmest of circumstances, and the Premier League also received a huge benefit from the defeat of Manchester United – a title race filled with new tension and edge, and a surge of encouragement for Arsenal.

For the rest of us there was the greatest reward of all – a real match of character between teams who realised they had to reach down for the best and the most inventive of their football.

The result was as improbable as it was thrilling – a football match to draw you away from all the squalor and the overstatement, the growing belief that the national game is bedevilled by a death wish. At Stamford Bridge, though, there was, it has to be said, another picture.

Of course, there was one major key to the possibility that this was going to be a genuine football version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, rather than some small-time shooting gallery presided over by Ashley Cole. It was whether United would come to play, to attack.

Naturally they did. The tendency runs deep in their nature whatever the state of their game, and after 29 minutes it received some ultimate encouragement.

It was the fact that at least on this night, when so many people believed he should be back home in his Cheshire mansion reflecting on another professional lapse, Wayne Rooney was plainly wielding something more potent than Cole's air gun.

Rooney's beautifully timed ground shot left Petr Cech beaten from the moment it left his foot, and the sweetness of the strike was perhaps not the only reason Sir Alex Ferguson ran from the dugout in such jubilation.

For at least 10 minutes United had been playing some of the best football of their extraordinarily committed but frequently unconvincing season. Nani, Patrice Evra and Javier Herdandez were working some extremely promising moves. Darren Fletcher grafted slavishly, and always to a purpose. Paul Scholes was, well, nothing so much as Paul Scholes. The authentic one, this is, and to an impressively pronounced degree.

Even Michael Carrick showed some of the poise and the intelligence which went missing so mysteriously in the middle of the season before last.

In contrast, Chelsea seemed to lose almost all the conviction that had marked an encouraging start to the match for the care-worn Carlo Ancelotti, one that saw a speculative shot by Fernando Torres ruled out because of some routine scuffling in the box and Florent Malouda shoot straight at Edwin van der Sar.

When Rooney struck so brilliantly, however, Chelsea had to choose between a serious response or watch an apparently ill-starred season fall to a new level of disintegration. To their credit, they battled their way to the first option, Van der Sar having to paw the ball away after Frank Lampard had sent the ball skidding into the box.

The counter-attack was maintained impressively after the break and when the home defender David Luiz scored with an assurance that must have brought a pang of envy to Torres, a game of classic potential was unfolding.

We were not disappointed – and especially not when Didier Drogba was brought on to replace Nicolas Anelka and Carrick almost instantly coughed up the ball in front of goal.

In a season when the Premier League has so often fallen short of its claim to be the best in the world here, at last, was a game embracing some of its best qualities: pace, some exceptional individual ability, and the sense that neither team was ready to settle for anything less than all the spoils.

This was only heightened when Ferguson's response to the arrival of Drogba was to send in Dimitar Berbatov and Ryan Giggs, the 20-year man, for Hernandez and Scholes.

Berbatov's challenge was to pull the trigger at the right moment, Giggs' to match the influence and the bite of his old comrade-in-arms. All season there rarely can have been such vital assignments, and one reflection of the gathering tension was that Luiz, such an impressive presence for most of the night, should really have received a second yellow card for a blatant trip on Rooney.

Ferguson, already inflamed, went up another notch when Yuri Zhirkov made a banquet of Chris Smalling's largely inert left leg and Lampard smashed the penalty into the roof of United's net. It was not the desired climax to a game that had developed superbly and there was, as we had been provoked to imagine, some draining moments still to come, not least when a cutting little ball from Rooney left Fabio an inch from beating the diving Cech.

As it happened, the essential drama was over, if you don't count the disastrous dismissal of Nemanja Vidic for a bout of desperate spoiling. Chelsea had come back, if not from the dead then from the growing possibility of being outplayed. They came right back to being, again, vibrantly alive.