Chelsea prove title credentials

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0
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The Independent Football

The eyes had it. For much of this intense, high-tempo clash Claudio Ranieri was rolling his at every minor blemish - such is his passionate commitment to the cause - but in the end the animated Italian was able to do exactly what he had dreamed of.

His gaze met Sir Alex Ferguson's not just as an equal but as a victor. Eyeball to eyeball. Whether or not he will be the Manchester United manager's better come the end of the season only time will tell. United are a dangerous team to dismiss. Experience has taught the Premiership that, especially with the autumn leaves on the ground. But this victory - by another single goal, another clean sheet (astonishingly their sixth in succession) - elevated Chelsea to the top of the pile and pumped up an already inflated local expectation. Don't be fooled by its slenderness, or the Chelsea coach's histrionics. The team that is worth an awful lot were worthy winners.

Chances were spurned, opportunities passed, in a committed encounter and yet it was a penalty, correctly garnered after a hairline decision by Roy Keane not to withdraw from a probably needless challenge, that settled it. In the end the champions got what they deserved. There was a conservatism to their play which betrayed the club's attacking instincts. Their claws were withdrawn and, with that, disappeared much of their menace.

Most concerning of all for Ferguson is that they appeared a team more in transition than their hosts, who are very definitely contenders - and, last night, were installed as the bookmakers' favourites.

Although it was United who rotated their line-up to a greater extent after the efforts of qualifying for the next stage of the Champions League, it was Ranieri, again, who sprung the surprise. Damien Duff - his most potent attacking weapon - was left on the substitutes' bench. A bench worth £45m, by the way, twice the value of United's.

That Ranieri was then able to introduce the Irishman just before the hour mark simply confirmed the opulence at his disposal. Chelsea started and finished nervously. In between they were impressive nerveless, and never more so than when Lampard dispatched the winning penalty. Such is the midfielder's soaring confidence that he took the kick, in the absence of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. His strike was low to Tim Howard's left. It was awarded after Cole burst onto a clever pass by Hernan Crespo only for the ball to run away. Keane, however, carried on and his outstretched leg checked his opponent's momentum. The tumble was extravagant but the referee was correct.

Until then Keane had been the most potent presence. United flowed through him. Twice Carlo Cudicini was sold short with Ryan Giggs crowded out and then Diego Forlan narrowly failing to intercept. But after the goal United retreated. Mario Melchiot threw himself at a deflected shot only for Howard to parry and then Cole, hurtling through, scooped the ball over.

In a bizarre moment the home side started the second half with 10 men - Geremi caught out as he changed his boots. It was the only mistake they made. United were looking increasingly forlorn - Van Nistelrooy's body language betraying a collective discomfort with only Mikaël Silvestre providing any defensive cohesion. Their paucity was confirmed by a Forlan free-kick which was hacked appallingly into the side-netting. Then John O'Shea broke down the left and crossed for Van Nistelrooy, whose spin and shot was executed with bewildering speed only for the ball to strike William Gallas's leg and dart wide.

But the victory was Chelsea's and, at the end, their substitutes flooded the pitch. United will come again but with a fifth successive league victory and no goals conceded since the loss to Arsenal in October, Chelsea have hit the front as clear-eyed contenders in a three-horse race.

Goals: 1-0 (Lampard, pen 29).

Chelsea (4-1-2-1-2): Cudicini 6; Melchiot 5, Gallas 7, Terry 8, Bridge 5; Lampard 8, Makelele 7, Cole 7 (Duff 58, 6), Geremi 7; Mutu 7 (Hasselbaink 79), Crespo 5 (Gronkjaer 60, 5). Substitutes not used: Ambrosio (gk), Desailly.

Manchester United (4-4-2):: Howard 7; G Neville 6, Ferdinand 5, Silvestre 7, O'Shea 5; Giggs 7, Keane 7, P Neville 4 (Kleberson 77), Fortune 4 (Ronaldo 72, 5); Forlan 5, Van Nistelrooy 5. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), Butt, Bellion.

Bookings: Chelsea: Cole, Melchiot, Lampard, Mutu. Man Utd: Keane.

Referee: A Wiley 4 (Burntwood).

Man of the match: Lampard.

Attendance: 41,932.