Tempers flare as United pay penalty for gambling

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As the temperature rose, and Sir Alex Ferguson's blood was considerably higher than 98.6F, he advanced down the line towards the assistant whose intervention would ultimately mean that the destination of the title remains in doubt. You could be mistaken, but you suspected that he wasn't mouthing: "I think you may have been unsighted there, linesman."

You thought, not for the first time here yesterday: so much for the Football Association's respect campaign. Manchester United players too often in referee Alan Wiley's face; so too on occasion were Chelsea's; and a minor set-to involving Rio Ferdinand and Chelsea players towards the end.

Incidents of players going to ground all too easily. There were even contretemps between Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba about the taking of a free-kick and the penalty. And, at the end, we had Ferguson striding on to the pitch to call his men away from Mr Wiley, who had actually officiated with remarkable good sense and tolerance, given the circumstances.

Even after the final whistle, there was a confrontation between Chelsea ground staff and Manchester United players who had played no part – Patrice Evra, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Gerard Pique and John O'Shea – who were all warming down. Stewards had to separate them.

Yet, it is a curious thing. No matter how much we may condemn the histrionics, you could forgive it all because of the drama, passion and remarkable capacity to engage. Even Chelsea manager Avram Grant had to concede, when asked about United's perceived sins: "Football is a game of emotion, not sitting in a saloon and talking about it."

Victory, and United would have been there, bar all protests from mathematicians. A draw and their followers could have prepared to fete their men. Now it all yields another fortnight of intrigue. Though Ferguson rightly questioned the legitimacy of the handball award against Michael Carrick that led to what transpired to be Chelsea's winning spot-kick, deep in that soul of his, the United manager would have to acknowledge that justice was done.

Ferguson offered Chelsea their chance yesterday, naming Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, and Owen Hargreaves on the bench, with Paul Scholes and Patrice Evra missing. Yet, one senses that he could afford to be generous. It had been suggested that United may try to wrap it all up in style at the home of their only challengers still standing, and simultaneously, put an end to that undefeated home record that can be traced back seemingly light years. Not a chance.

But that was the calculated gamble Ferguson had taken. He was determined not to unnecessarily drain his forces ahead of Tuesday night's Champions' League second leg with Barcelona. It was said that Avram Grant had been bullish beforehand. "If we win against them, anything can happen," he had said. Which is about as buoyant as he gets. For reasons best known to himself, his predecessor Jose Mourinho had claimed that United were champions regardless. Thanks Jose. For 45 minutes, we had high noon, and a bit, in the blazing sunshine of west London, yet it was as if nobody had bothered to bring the ammunition. Grant and Ferguson had greeted each like old friends, though the latter soon reverted to type when Ashley Cole clattered Darren Fletcher about a foot from his nose. For the second time in four days, we witnessed the strange spectacle of United undertaking a rearguard action; with Wayne Rooney at one stage hacking clear to relieve the pressure.

The pressure was getting to Ferguson, who protested to fourth official Mike Riley at every opportunity. The only time he was impassive before the interval was when the excellent Michael Ballack headed home in the first minute of added time. The home players held up a No 8 Lampard shirt, which carried the legend "Pat Lampard RIP", as a tribute to the absent midfielder's late mother.

United were reprieved by a gift from Ricardo Carvalho, inadvertently finding the otherwise anonymous Wayne Rooney, who scored with aplomb, though it was scarcely a reflection of United's performance. Ferguson demanded more vocal encouragement from United's fans. But they were silenced when Carrick handed the game to Chelsea. Ballack was coolness personified with the spot-kick. Chelsea continue to dream. United may just start to fret.