Smith the ringleader in rebellion against Chelsea's dictatorship

Manchester United 1 Chelsea 0
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The Independent Football

It meant that much. Chelsea's 40-game unbeaten Premiership sequence is over, the devastating march of the champions has been slowed and it was a blow inflicted by a football club who have grasped the prospect of their own revival in the most thrilling terms. The death notices posted for Manchester United's dominance of English football will have to be amended because Darren Fletcher's 31st-minute goal has set the stage for a one-club mutiny against Chelsea's dictatorship.

Back in the tunnel, as his only post-match interview was beamed out live on Sky television, Ferguson reverted to the idiom that has served him so well in his more private dealings with journalists. "Absolute bollocks," was his reaction to Sky's Geoff Shreeves' question that, never before in his 19 years at Old Trafford, has the old Scot been under so much pressure. It was a snapshot to the watching public of what the Ferguson temper can be like away from the television cameras and it also revealed, unwittingly, just how that unrelenting pressure has built over the decades.

Defeated by Middlesbrough and Lille, excoriated by their captain Roy Keane in his infamous banned MUTV interview, Ferguson's side risked being rendered irrelevant to the Premiership season. Yesterday, led by the inspirational Alan Smith in midfield, they began what Ferguson must hope will prove to be the long and arduous journey to catch the champions. The win takes United to third in the Premiership, 10 points behind Chelsea with a game in hand, and suddenly the impossible pursuit does not seem quite so daunting.

A solitary figure who sat separately from Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs in the Old Trafford directors' box, Keane did not wait for the roar that accompanied the end of the match to take his leave. The crowd sang his name, and Smith credited him for inspiring the side, but this was a performance that signalled that, at last, Ferguson's young side may just have shrugged off their reliance upon the 34-year-old captain whose contract expires at the end of this season. Of late their manager has talked much of the young players in the team taking on the mantle; yesterday they did just that.

The show was emphatically stolen from Jose Mourinho, an unfamiliar prospect to the Chelsea manager whose only two Premiership defeats have been inflicted in Manchester - the first, to City, was 16 October last year. He altered his team's formation as time ticked away, switching from the conservatism of 4-1-4-1, to 4-4-2 and finally 3-5-2 as Chelsea worked through the patterns that have crushed so many sides but never quite broke down United's stubborn resistance.

Early on, Smith set an uncompromising mood - two perfectly executed tackles on Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, one ruthless assault on Asier del Horno's ankles - and it was in midfield that United attempted to scatter Chelsea's normal rhythm. Lampard's exquisitely placed through-ball found Rio Ferdinand the wrong side of Drogba on eight minutes: his lob failed to clear Edwin van der Sar.

Cristiano Ronaldo had started the brightest for United but it was not until the 18th minute that Wayne Rooney first shaped a passage of play. Mikaël Silvestre's long ball down the left channel found the striker and he cut the ball back to Paul Scholes, who rifled a shot just wide of Petr Cech's left post.

That was the warning, yet there was very little that Chelsea could do to prevent a beautifully crafted United goal. Wes Brown struck a waist-high ball at Rooney and, with a flawless touch, the striker laid off to Scholes, who switched play to Ronaldo on the left. The winger struck a long, slow cross out to the back-post and it was Fletcher who, with Cech stranded, chose the most difficult option with a looping header back inside the far post.

Within nine minutes of the restart, United could have closed the game down. Rooney swept a confident deep ball out to Fletcher by the corner flag on the right wing; he cut it back for Ruud van Nistelrooy and, from close range, United's captain for the afternoon struck his shot over. It would have given his side the breathing space they craved and in response Mourinho's side swirled around the home side's goal.

The game gathered pace, Graham Poll booked five players in seven minutes, among them Smith who had tested the referee's patience but had given his most complete performance in his new midfield role. In the 73rd minute he locked on to Drogba in the penalty area as the striker collected Lampard's cut-back and only an immaculately timed tackle from Smith stopped him from shooting.

The secret formula for beating Chelsea has long been identified as finding a way in which to curtail Claude Makelele's influence - applying it has been much more difficult. Smith may yet be relatively unschooled in the defensive midfield role but he caused enough chaos in Chelsea's ranks - he even went nose-to-nose with John Terry - to suggest that this is a way in which the champions could be unsettled.

Old Trafford responded with the kind of noise that has long been considered beyond those 67,000 pensive witnesses of United's recent decline. Drogba was grounded on 57 minutes when he flicked in a shot that Van der Sar managed to force around the post. The United goalkeeper did even better to keep out a close-range effort from Lampard as the midfielder timed his run on to Drogba's cut-back.

The intensity of the pressure was raised and Carlton Cole was sent on, the third of Mourinho's substitutes, to augment the attack. Park Ji-Sung replaced Van Nistelrooy as United dug in to defend and Rooney's shot on 83 minutes, that could have decided the game, was deflected wide by Paulo Ferreira. Two great empires of English football were set implacably against one another - and it was United who refused to buckle.

Ferguson sprung to his feet at the final whistle, a different kind of man altogether from the bemused, helpless bystander slumped in his seat at the Stade de France on Wednesday night. As a man who knows well the power language has to inspire, his impromptu defence of his regime live to the nation may, on reflection, cause him a flicker of embarrassment - he did, however, make his point.

Goal: Fletcher (31) 1-0

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea; Fletcher, Scholes, Smith, Ronaldo; Rooney; Van Nistelrooy (Park, 80). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Richardson, Bardsley, Rossi.

Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira, Gallas, Terry; Del Horno (C Cole, 78); J Cole (Wright-Phillips, 73), Lampard, Essien (Gudjohnsen, 55), Duff; Drogba. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Carvalho.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire).

Booked: Manchester United Smith, Ronaldo, Fletcher; Chelsea Drogba, Ferreira, Gallas, Makelele.

Man of the match: Smith.

Attendance: 67,864.