After the pre-match Remembrance Sunday minute's silence, Sir Alex Ferguson walked off the pitch with his arm linked in Carlo Ancelotti's and stopped at the touchline to ask Ray Wilkins to translate a joke into Italian for the Chelsea manager. What is it they say about Ferguson and rival managers? That he is only chummy with those he does not feel are a threat?
Ninety minutes later, Ferguson will have been obliged to reassess that verdict on his Chelsea counterpart who had just overseen a victory over United that gives everyone at Old Trafford something to think about. Ferguson raged about the referee Martin Atkinson, about his team being the best side on the day, but on the occasion of his side's third league defeat this season that all sounded a little hollow.
Just like that restless left eyebrow of Ancelotti that rises and falls seemingly of its own accord, this title race has become entirely unpredictable. Chelsea are five points clear at the top but have lost games to Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa. United will be only four points ahead of Liverpool if the latter beat Birmingham tonight — and Liverpool are supposed to be in crisis. It says something that Arsenal are currently a byword for consistency.
For now the moment belongs to Ancelotti whose team have not conceded in 872 minutes of football and kept their heads as the game's inevitable grudges and feuds bubbled to the surface. It was never as intense as Moscow last year, or the "Battle of the Bridge" a month earlier but games between these two clubs are sufficiently tight and tense to be decided on the very smallest of details, and so it proved this time.
Nicolas Anelka may or may not have got the final touch on the goal but, if he did, it did little more than deflect off his back after John Terry had flicked on Frank Lampard's free-kick from the left; yet it was the French striker who was the outstanding player of the first half. He, more than anyone, looked like the man most likely to decide the match although Wayne Rooney ran him close in the second half.
This was not one of those epochal Chelsea-United games when you feel one team has either been plunged into trouble or rescued themselves from decline with an improbable victory – as United did almost exactly four years ago with Darren Fletcher's goal at Old Trafford. Yet it was United's third defeat of the season and there is cause for concern about a team who keep losing their way and a manager who keeps moaning about referees.
Even with Rooney, United looked flat in attack. It is not often they miss Dimitar Berbatov but they did yesterday. With Ryan Giggs isolated on the left and Antonio Valencia equally out of touch on the other flank, they just did not have the menace of last season. Cristiano Ronaldo never had his best games against Chelsea – Moscow aside, he never scored against them – but they do really miss him in the big games.
Without an outstanding individual, the game was always likely to turn on something controversial. That was the free-kick that led to the goal that referee Atkinson gave for a fairly innocuous challenge by Fletcher on Ashley Cole on Chelsea's left. As the ball came in, Didier Drogba seemed to pull Wes Brown over. Terry met the cross and Edwin Van der Sar was beaten.
As Terry left the pitch at the end of the game amid the handshakes and the backslapping he stopped for a moment before the tunnel to look up and wave at his two children in the stand. It was a nice moment to share with the family, although there are other members of the Terry clan that he would probably be less disposed to acknowledge in public at the moment.
After his mother accepted a police caution for shoplifting earlier in the year, Terry's father Ted yesterday fell victim to a News of the World sting. Terry senior was caught on camera facilitating a cocaine deal with an undercover reporter which was not the ideal reading for his son on the morning of a big match. Terry did a good job of stopping United's attackers getting to the line. Pity he could not do the same for his father.
But even the Chelsea captain was fortuitous when Valencia got a yard on him in the 14th minute and accelerated past. Terry knew he was beaten for speed and barged into the winger, grabbing him and falling at the same time. It was beautifully executed to convince the referee that both players had simply collided and gone to ground together, but make no mistake: Terry was beaten. It should have been a penalty.
On the balance of decisions, United could perhaps feel hard done by, which was presumably why Rooney mouthed "12th man" at the camera as he came off the pitch. But Drogba had his complaints too, when Jonny Evans jumped into him and appeared to stud the striker. As he waited to return to the pitch after treatment, Drogba was so upset that he lifted his shirt to show the pitchside camera his battle-wounds.
In that moment, and also when Evans had kicked Ricardo Carvalho after play had stopped, the match threatened to boil over but it never quite did. Both midfields smothered each other and the creativity of Michael Carrick, Deco and, later, Joe Cole was never allowed to flourish for a moment. Fletcher had a decent game but his combative nature means he is prone to give away free-kicks in crucial positions.
There were some excellent performances in both defences, especially United where Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were both missing. At the other end Carvalho and Terry were reliable but Branislav Ivanovic was also exceptional, diving to head away a tricky cross deep into injury-time.
This has been the marquee fixture of English football over the last five years and nothing yesterday made you think that these two will not be in contention come May. But for all the glum faces in red shirts and the celebrations on the opposing side no-one was claiming that this was definitive. Neither are indomitable, both are capable of losing games.
Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Cech; Ivanovic, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Essien; Ballack, Deco (J Cole, 63), Lampard; Anelka (Alex, 90), Drogba (Kalou, 83). Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Mikel, Malouda, Ferreira.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Brown, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson (Owen, 85); Valencia, Rooney, Giggs (Obertan, 85). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak, Vidic, Scholes, F Da Silva, Gibson.
Referee: M Atkinson (Leeds)
Booked: Chelsea Ivanovic, Drogba, Carvalho Manchester United: Evans, Rooney, Valencia.
Man of the match: Anelka