There were no major celebrations at the end of the game last night, and no one was foolish enough to say that this was the moment that Chelsea launched their push for the league title, but for all those who have wondered of late what happened to last season's Double-winners – they turned up at last in the second half.
Too late in the season perhaps to make a proper defence of their title come May but just in time to prove that, in the words of their manager Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea are not dead. Still 12 points adrift of the leaders with a game in hand, their title chances could still be described as critical but, as in the case of Ashley Cole's gunshot victim last week, they live to fight another day.
Ancelotti's team were overwhelmed in the first half and when Wayne Rooney scored a brilliant opening goal on 29 minutes this looked like a very difficult evening for the Italian manager. His midfield was overrun, his defence was rocking but from somewhere in the second half Chelsea summoned some of that indefatigable spirit that has characterised this club's best moments in the Roman Abramovich era.
Chelsea were lucky with some of the decisions of referee Martin Atkinson who might have sent off David Luiz for a second bookable offence for either one of his challenges on Javier Hernandez and Rooney. The scorer of Chelsea's equaliser, Luiz looked at times inspired and, occasionally, a liability albeit with all the makings of a Stamford Bridge favourite.
As for Sir Alex Ferguson, he did not spare Atkinson the full force of his scorn in his post-match interviews. He began them by saying that Atkinson had got it wrong on Luiz and by the time he was speaking to the faithful on MUTV, the Manchester United manager had ramped up the charge to fully-blown bias.
Somewhere in between he had forgotten his more magnanimous point before the game that Rooney was lucky to be on the pitch at all after his elbow on James McCarthy against Wigan Athletic on Saturday. Ferguson can surprise you sometimes with his readiness to admit that his players have been fortunate and then he surprises you again by how quickly he forgets his good luck.
Atkinson was the referee for this fixture last season in which he allowed a controversial Chelsea winner to stand and Ferguson has not forgotten. In calling into question the referee's fairness, the United manager may well have earned himself a Football Association charge just two days after Rooney swerved his.
Ferguson also had a complaint about the award of the penalty which gave Frank Lampard the opportunity to score the winner, and you had to concede that he had a point. It was a soft one in which Yuri Zhirkov ran, with no little determination, into the trailing leg of Chris Smalling in order to throw himself over it and test Atkinson's resolve in front of the home fans.
Nevertheless, what last night told Ferguson was that this team of his are not of the same quality as previous United sides who would have disposed of a dodgy Chelsea side. He lost his captain Nemanja Vidic to a second yellow card late on which means he is out of Sunday's game at Liverpool, a match for which United will also be without Rio Ferdinand, still injured, and potentially Patrice Evra, who hobbled off last night.
Their lead is a slender four points at the top of the Premier League table, having played one game more than second-placed Arsenal, and no one is quite sure whether United have the nerve to finish the job this season. Their run-in is far from straightforward with a game at the Emirates and then the visit of Chelsea to Old Trafford in the space of six days in early May.
These are indeed interesting times in the Premier League title race, which has just 13 points between the sides in first and fifth place and no one team among them that has not shown themselves capable of bottling it. As entertainment, last night lived up to the expectations. It was exciting and there was a twist in the plot but you could not help thinking that previous United and Chelsea teams of the recent past were better than these two sides.
Ferguson picked the same team that played Wigan on Saturday, the first time he has named an unchanged side for two consecutive games since May 2008. That meant there was no place for Ryan Giggs or Dimitar Berbatov in the starting line-up although both of them came on in the second half as the manager sensed that the game was slipping away from him.
In the first half United, after a slow start, had such a grip on the game they could have scored more than once. Luis Nani and Evra dominated Branislav Ivanovic down the left wing. More than once, Chelsea gave thanks for the cool of Luiz. Cole, assailed by calls to shoot from the away end every time he touched the ball, did not have his best night either.
Rooney had passed up a couple of chances – including a free header from a Nani cross – before his goal. He picked the ball up in the left channel from Nani and doubling back away from the dozy Branislav Ivanovic he cracked a scorching shot just inside Petr Cech's right post. His celebration in front of the Matthew Harding stand – chin tipped up, arms outstretched – was a fair summary of his two-fingers-up-to-the-world philosophy.
Chelsea did have chances – a weak shot from Florent Malouda after Nicolas Anelka's cross – and then a brilliant double save from Edwin van der Sar that denied first Lampard and then Ivanovic. But by the time they reached the break this was United's game to lose. No one really expected them to do so.
Luiz's equaliser nine minutes into the second half galvanised his team. Still up from a corner, the centre-half volleyed in Ivanovic's flick-on from Michael Essien's cross from the left. After that, there was one chance for Rooney, played in down the left by Nani, which he missed. Otherwise it was all Chelsea. When the penalty came 10 minutes from time, Lampard scored confidently.
As for United, it unravelled rather too easily with Vidic's red card. They go to Anfield with only one of their first-choice defenders available and the nagging fear that they have not quite got what it takes to put this title race to bed.
Chelsea Ramires, Luiz, Essien. Man United Vidic, Giggs.
Sent off: Man United Vidic (90).
Man of the match Luiz.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire)
Shoot, Ashley, Shoot!
Football fans are a witty bunch and those at the Bridge last night were no exception with shouts of ‘Shoot’ ringing out whenever Ashley Cole was in possession. An easy target
Petr Cech Could do nothing about Rooney's goal. Stood tall at times but rarely tested. 7
Branislav Ivanovic Had a difficult start but grew into the game, pushing on after the break and winning the header for Luiz's goal. 8
David Luiz Dealt well with Rooney and brought the ball serenely out of defence. Perfect hit for goal. Lucky to avoid red card. 8
John Terry Assured for the most part, as United attacked in numbers. One storming run down the left in the second half. 7
Ashley Cole Neutered as an attacking force, his primary contribution was clipping a first-half free-kick just over the crossbar. 6
Ramires Vanished after an early booking but had a much bolder second half. Drew the foul that saw Vidic dismissed. 8
Michael Essien Squeezed out at the start but powerfully came into his own later on. 8
Frank Lampard For much of the game the pace was too much for him, although he was technically good and took his penalty well. 7
Florent Malouda Bright start but then struggled to cause John O'Shea too many problems. 6
Nicolas Anelka Well marshalled by Vidic for most of the evening. Withdrawn for Drogba in the second half as Chelsea went direct. 7
Fernando Torres Drifted in and out of the game. Some of his movement was good but he rarely found himself in goal-scoring areas. 6
Best off the bench:
Yuri Zhirkov Won the decisive penalty going over Smalling's foot. Also hit the post. 6
Edwin van der Sar Exceptional reaction save in the first half. Powerless for either goal. 8
John O'Shea Not used as an attacking option but rather to restrict Malouda and Cole, which he did consistently well. 7
Chris Smalling Another mature performance, with some excellent aerial and positional play. Unlucky to concede the penalty. 7
Nemanja Vidic Brave all evening, chesting the ball off the line after Van der Sar's first-half save. Sent off near the end. 7
Patrice Evra Brisk and imaginative going forward, especially in the first half. Slow getting out to Luiz for Chelsea's equaliser. 7
Paul Scholes Dictated tempo of first half from deep but noticeably tired and was replaced. 7
Darren Fletcher Helped to restrict the attacks of Ashley Cole without threatening himself. 6
Michael Carrick Sometimes tidy but gifted possession to Chelsea in dangerous areas at times. 6
Nani Bright and sparky but found it harder to beat Ivanovic as the game went on. Little impact in closing stages. 6
Wayne Rooney Exceptional movement as a No 10 behind Hernandez, he deserved his well-struck goal. Always a threat. 8
Javier Hernandez Lively front-running but withdrawn midway through second half. 7
Best off the bench
Fabio Might have scored a late equaliser but denied by Cech from close in. 7Reuse content