This fine mess of a Premier League season, in which any side can beat another, however mighty, has probably been decided by a fine mess of an afternoon. Dire officiating, a poor United, a moderate Chelsea. Do not let the premature and putative talk of Joe Cole for an England recall detract from the fact that, Florent Malouda aside, there were no gladiators out there on the Old Trafford pitch.
Carlo Ancelotti declared that his side should be more than two points ahead at the summit, given their maximum 15 points so far from games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. But this result was more about United's poverty of spirit than the richness of Chelsea. Ancelotti's men are no more an elite team this season than United, whose seven defeats mean that, in the unlikely event of them now winning the title, they will have equalled Blackburn Rovers 1994-5 record for most losses on the way to the Premier League trophy.
The top flight's crown is askew: if no English side contests next month's Champions League final, then it will have been an accurate reflection of the last eight months. The talk around Old Trafford yesterday was of how a side which shredded Milan in a 7-2 aggregate win last month could have fallen to their worst first-half performance of the season just when it really mattered. The temptation to reach for easy answers takes us to the fact that four out of their five European trips have been followed by domestic defeats this season.
Yet the substitute Luis Nani, who flickered brightly, had struggled through most of that evening in Munich, while Dimitar Berbatov – whose big moment came and went – and an anonymous Ryan Giggs, played next to no part in the Allianz Arena.
The predictable, though essential, conclusion is that United have grown too dependent on the warrior heartbeat of their club. Wayne Rooney the forager was as much of a loss as Rooney the finisher. "I'm not surprised [by their poor possession] because it is not a good moment for their team after losing to Bayern Munich during the week and because they have lost a very important player," Ancelotti reflected. "It's not easy for United to maintain their momentum without Rooney. It's difficult for them now having lost against Munich, having lost Rooney and now this game."
United's only other league defeat of this calendar year – at Everton – came when Rooney failed to fire and though the support acts can generally be relied upon, the side's average age was 31 years and three months on Saturday. Chelsea, those so-called old men of the Premier League, were over two years younger.
Nani playing from the start might have imbued the side with some pace at least, but he is not an individual who can always be depended on. But Federico Macheda does seem to be, with three goals in six starts and a nature that might persuade Sir Alex Ferguson to use him more. Asked if he had handled the ball when giving his side some hope two minutes after Drogba's offside strike was allowed to stand, the 18-year-old Italian shot back: "I don't know. It's a goal. Handball or not, it's gone now."
It was curious to hear Ancelotti, 18 days after the Champions League exit to Internazionale which tore at the club, arguing the merits of a full week's preparations. "We had the possibility to maintain a good condition during the week; to improve our condition and our play," he said. His side looked fluid and purposeful for 45 minutes, Deco possessing the space to manipulate play before Malouda delivered with efficiency, touch and movement. The intelligence of the Frenchman's contribution to Cole's flicked opener goal – tearing beyond Gary Neville as the defender wondered whether to pursue him or check Yuri Zhirkov's overlap – was one of the outstanding moments.
"He's not the type of player who will do many skills but he is really efficient on the pitch when he is playing," Drogba said of Malouda. "Simple touches, passes and assists. He reads the game very well."
The din from the Chelsea dressing room on Saturday afternoon also revealed something about the powers of revival nobody thought Ancelotti had. "I've been in football since I was 13 years old so this is just normal," he said. "It's normal to feel pressure after a defeat but just because of that you should not lose confidence in your players and you have to stay focused and look forward because if you look behind at things and how they could have been that is no good. It's better to look forward, to be positive."
Manchester United(4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Fletcher (Gibson, 86), Scholes, (Nani, 71), Giggs; Park (Macheda, 71); Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Rafael, De Laet, Carrick.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Alex, Terry, Zhirkov; Mikel; Cole (Kalou, 73), Lampard, Deco (Ballack, 81), Malouda; Anelka (Drogba, 69). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Belletti, Bruma, Ballack, Sturridge.
Referee M Dean (Wirral)
Booked: Manchester Utd: Scholes, Neville, Fletcher; Chelsea: Deco, J Cole.
Man of the match: Malouda.