Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho shared a point and a £200 bottle of Portuguese wine last night but it was an opinion shared on events at Old Trafford that told of a potential psychological blow being dealt in this season's title race. The respective managers of Manchester United and Chelsea were unanimous in the view the contenders had wasted a glorious chance to hurt the champions.
With United dominant and Louis Saha atoning for his penalty miss at Celtic by sweeping the Premiership leaders ahead on the half-hour, an eighth successive League victory and a healthy six-point lead over their greatest obstacle to a first League title in four years beckoned. They could not deliver. An interval gamble from Mourinho saw a right-back, Geremi, replaced by a left winger, Arjen Robben, and the tide changed with his tactics, Ricardo Carvalho equalising with a majestic header that took a deflection off the United goalscorer 21 minutes from time as Chelsea produced a response befitting champions.
A three-point margin may still separate the front-runners but the momentum was evidently with Mourinho as the Chelsea manager claimed that "Man United lost a big, big chance to make a six-point advantage" and Ferguson could not find the evidence to disagree.
"I am satisfied with the performance. It tells me when we hit the high levels we are probably the best team in the country at the moment," the United manager insisted. "But the test is to step forward from this game. You've got to be consistent and beat teams if you want to win championships. This was a big opportunity for us to open up a six-point gap but we haven't done it and Chelsea are delighted with that. It keeps them in sight of us and as the season goes on we are going to have to be consistent. I think it is going to be nip and tuck between us all the way."
By the indications from Mourinho, United will do well to take the contest that far. "This is more positive for us than United," he said. "This was first against second at the home of the first who had a big chance to open the gap. If I was in their position I would be very frustrated. Mentally, they faced this game knowing they had a big chance and they couldn't do it. At home. In the second half of the season Manchester United have to go to Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. They have played all their big games at home so far. They will have a difficult time in the second half of the season but, as an independent, I thought this was a fantastic game and fantastic for the prestige of the Premiership around the world."
Michael Carrick, bizarrely named man of the match on an evening when Ashley Cole excelled, admitted: "We gave ourselves a great chance in a big game and gave away a sloppy goal at a set piece. We feel very frustrated."
Mourinho admitted he took his players to task at the interval following a subdued opening half. "Only two or three were performing at their high levels, Ashley Cole and Carvalho were unbelievable, and the rest were doing nothing to win," he revealed. "I told them to not be afraid of losing. I took a risk with the substitution and the second half was a completely different game."
But, despite his buoyancy, the Chelsea manager admitted that the title race is more open than it has ever been since he arrived in the Premiership over two years ago. Mourinho added: "Arsenal and Liverpool can still challenge. The most positive thing is that Arsenal did not close the gap when the top two met. Instead, we are both one more point above them."
Man for man marking: Who sparkled at Old Trafford
* EDWIN VAN DER SAR
Saved from Geremi and Lampard (twice) from outside the area and had no chance with the equaliser. 6/10
* GARY NEVILLE
A typical captain's performance. As unflappable as you would expect from a man with his big-game experience. 7
* RIO FERDINAND
Commanding for long spells, although he and the back four were stretched after the interval. 7
* NEMANJA VIDIC
Similar impact as his central defensive partner, despite being roughed up once or twice in the first half. 6
* GABRIEL HEINZE
Marred an excellent performance by being outjumped in the air - one of the left-back's usual strengths - for the equaliser. 6
* CRISTIANO RONALDO
Unleashed an early free-kick that tested Cudicini and was always a threat, another shot being deflected wide. 7
* MICHAEL CARRICK
Technically proficient and effective in the midfield battle. Booked for chopping down Lampard. 8
* PAUL SCHOLES
His post-injury career renaissance continued apace as he played no small part in United's first-half dominance. 6
* RYAN GIGGS
A high-quality contribution featuring an assist for the Saha goal. On target with an effort of his own. 8
* WAYNE ROONEY
Wound up for the occasion but kept his head sufficiently to play the fine pass from which Saha scored. 6
* LOUIS SAHA
Exorcised his Celtic demons with a terrific ice-breaker and might have added a second. 7
* CARLO CUDICINI
Uncertain in the air on one early occasion but recovered and saved well from Ronaldo and Giggs in later exchanges. 6/10
The sacrificial lamb after Chelsea's ineffectual first-half performance, although he had been sound enough both defending and attacking. 6
* JOHN TERRY
What can you say that has not been said about him before? Inspirational and powerful as usual. 7
* RICARDO CARVALHO
Allowed Saha too much space for the opening goal but redeemed himself with a thumping header that produced the equaliser. 6
* ASHLEY COLE
Honours were even in his reunion with Ronaldo, although the pacey head-to-head eventually brought him a booking. 8
* CLAUDE MAKELELE
Booked for kicking the ball away and, in a low-key contribution, was well off target with a late shot. 6
* MICHAEL ESSIEN
Switched at the interval to play at right-back to excellent effect and frequently marauded deep into United territory. 8
* FRANK LAMPARD
Improved after a disappointing first half, with his shooting an ever-increasing factor. Good corner for the equaliser. 6
* MICHAEL BALLACK
Another anonymous first-half figure who did better from then on. Still not firing, though, as Chelsea would like. 6
* DIDIER DROGBA
Found little joy against the excellent Ferdinand-Vidic combination. Booked for a stray arm at the latter. 6
* ANDREI SHEVCHENKO
Still well below his best and United were probably disappointed when he was taken off for Cole. 5
* ARJEN ROBBEN
Failed to have a major impact despite being given 45 minutes to pit his wits against Neville. 6
* JOE COLE
Had to wait until relatively late for his entrance. Unable to make an impression. 6Reuse content