Manchester United 1 Chelsea 1: Mourinho masterplan stems the red tide as champions make point

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The Independent Football

If the future really does belong to Chelsea, then it seems that the deadly grip once exerted on English football by Sir Alex Ferguson will have to be prised off finger-by-finger. Manchester United have not been toppled from the top of the Premiership but if this was the decisive war to decide the season that the hype pronounced then, by the end, both the generals were claiming victory.

The most important fact is that United still sit on top of the Premiership by three points, but Jose Mourinho did not look like a man who feared that his third consecutive title was out of sight. Neither did his players, who went over to applaud their supporters with some relish after a second-half equaliser had levelled Louis Saha's goal ­ all helped by another masterful tactical change-up from Mourinho.

Even picking a hero and a villain was tough work. Saha certainly earned some redemption for his goal after Tuesday's penalty-kick miss against Celtic. He was then credited by Ferguson with an own goal for deflecting Ricardo Carvalho's header past Edwin van der Sar. The ball was already goalbound but, on the line, it was Saha who directed it away from the despairing hand of his goalkeeper.

There needs to be more evidence than this to support Peter Kenyon's ambitions for Chelsea's world domination by 2014, even if Mourinho had turned the tide at half-time. Before then, United seemed destined to extend their lead at the top of the Premiership to six points but the introduction of Arjen Robben, with Michael Essien switched to the right, meant that, given an extra 15 minutes, Chelsea would surely have triumphed.

After the action, the spin. Mourinho claimed that a weekend in which United had blown a chance to extend their lead and in which Chelsea had gained a point on Arsenal was his triumph. Ferguson blustered about the superior enthusiasm and invention of his team. All anyone could agree on was that, come May, it will be close.

Michael Carrick was given the man of the match award by Steve McClaren in the Sky Sports studio ­ a decision that caused Mourinho to gulp in disbelief. The England midfielder had been impressive, certainly looking for the first time like a United player fit for the biggest stage.

But he was just edged by another international team-mate as the match's outstanding player. That was Ashley Cole because, quite simply, no one plays Cristiano Ronaldo better than him.

Unloved by most of English football, and not yet embraced by the Chelsea support, Cole matched Ronaldo as well as ever, controlling and shutting down United's greatest threat.

Before the match, McClaren had admitted on Sky that it had been a "big ask" of Wayne Rooney to perform in the World Cup finals and that his form had suffered accordingly. Yesterday, Ferguson deployed Rooney as a striker in a 4-4-2 formation and, in the first half, he flourished.

For only the second time this season, four of the Glazer brothers on the United board were present ­ it must have been a big match ­ and they saw a Ferguson side that looked much more dangerous, having ditched the 4-5-1 formation deployed against Celtic. Against a Chelsea midfield four of remarkable power that could be interpreted as a bold move ­ but, in the first half particularly, Ferguson was rewarded for his confidence.

The heart of United's midfield was unyielding, the chances for Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard around the edge of the area non-existent, with Carrick especially impressive. Essien's effect was severely restricted but even he was not as ineffectual as Andrei Shevchenko. Off the pace, with a loose first touch, the £30m man struggled to make an impact and was eventually substituted with 15 minutes left.

Ronaldo had already forced Carlo Cudicini into a fingertip save from a free-kick on 30 minutes when United eventually broke through. Carrick stole the ball as Lampard, Essien and Cole tried to work it forward. From there it went to Rio Ferdinand, on to Ryan Giggs, who picked out Rooney and his throughball found Saha. The Frenchman stepped to the side of Carvalho and beat Cudicini.

It was then that the match acquired the edge that had been missing from the early stages. There was some nonsense from Didier Drogba, who was felled by a robust tackle from Gabriel Heinze which, although launched from behind, took the ball first. The Chelsea striker went looking for retribution and found it with an elbow on Nemanja Vidic that the referee Howard Webb only judged worthy of a booking.

Time for a change ­ and Mourinho did not wait. At half-time he introduced Robben for Geremi, switched Essien to right-back, and his threat from the right made a significance difference. Despite that, an astounding chance fell United's way early when Rooney broke into Chelsea's area and sent over a cross that neither Saha nor Ronaldo could convert.

It was the manner of Chelsea's equaliser that will have caused United the greatest embarrassment. The move that ended with Chelsea winning their decisive corner began with Giggs passing the ball clumsily into touch from the centre of midfield. From there Chelsea worked the ball down the right and won the corner that Lampard sent deep to the back post. Carvalho headed home, via Saha, past Van der Sar.

Who wanted to win it most? The introduction of Joe Cole for Shevchenko suggested that it was Mourinho, although there was a severe shortage of potential match winners on Ferguson's bench.

Mourinho's Chelsea did not leave Old Trafford top of the table, but they certainly did not leave as the vanquished ­ the meeting of these two on 14 April at Stamford Bridge looks like a much more plausible title-deciding date.

Goals: Saha (30) 1-0; Saha og (69) 1-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Ronaldo (Fletcher, 85), Scholes, Carrick, Giggs; Rooney, Saha (O'Shea, 85). Substitutes not used: Evra, Silvestre, Kuszczak (gk).

Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini; Geremi (Robben, h-t), Terry, Carvalho, A Cole; Essien, Makelele, Ballack (Ferreira, 90), Lampard; Shevchenko (J Cole, 75), Drogba. Substitutes not used: Boulahrouz, Robben, Hilario (gk).

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester United: Carrick. Chelsea: Makelele, Drogba, A Cole.

Man of the match: A Cole.

Attendance: 75,948.

Rooney's new deal

Wayne Rooney has cited the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson, rather than the most lucrative playing contract in the history of Manchester United, as the principal reason for his decision to extend his Old Trafford career until 2012.

The striker has signed a deal worth at least £30m over the next six years - a weekly basic of £100,000 , which will increase with bonuses and image rights.

"He is the best manager around," the England international said of Ferguson. "I am learning from him every day, and with him as manager it was an easy decision to make."

Andy Hunter

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