If there was one consolation for Andre Villas-Boas yesterday it was that, unlike many young managers' first defeat at Old Trafford, he need not remember it as a humiliating experience. Eventually, he might even see it the way the rest of us did: as one of those football matches with the drama and unpredictability to make you shake your head in disbelief.
In terms of its ebb and flow, it did not feel like a 3-1 win for Manchester United, but then it did not feel like any game in recent memory. There were two offside goals and one miss from Fernando Torres that defied explanation, although Wayne Rooney's shanked penalty was not too far behind. There was the brilliant and there was the sheer erratic. It was football-eh-bloody-hell and it is only halfway through September.
The basic truth is that United have gone clear at the top of the Premier League with five wins from five games and 21 goals, which gives them two points on Manchester City, who drew yesterday. But that does not begin to tell half the story of a match played on the brink from start to finish and in which, despite the result, Chelsea had the upper hand for long periods.
Where to start? How about near the end when Torres, a dominant performer who scored within 30 seconds of the start of the second half, again ran through on goal and tricked his way around David de Gea. Old Trafford braced itself for him to pull the trigger and from a few yards out he stumbled on to the ball and put it to the left side of the post.
It was yet another moment that defied the usual narrative of a match. Just 30 seconds after half-time Torres had scored the kind of goal that made him look like Torres once more. Then his miss made you ask yourself all over again whether he really has sorted himself out. Sir Alex Ferguson compared it to Diego Forlan's infamous miss for United against Juventus in pre-season in 2003. But this was not a friendly in the United States. This was one of the biggest games of the season.
The other conspicuous miss came from Rooney, whose standing leg gave way when he took a penalty 10 minutes after the break, which meant that he scooped the ball wide in the fashion of John Terry in the 2008 Champions League final. "The worst things happen to the best strikers in the world," Villas-Boas said afterwards.
Although they went in at half-time three goals down, this was a decent Chelsea performance. They attacked United throughout and there was a bad miss from Ramires on 26 minutes with the score at 1-0 when he allowed De Gea to scramble back and push the ball around the post. That said, Ramires was excellent and so too the likes of Juan Mata and Torres as Chelsea's confidence grew in the second half.
There were plenty of signs that this is a new Chelsea era. As Villas-Boas switched to a 4-4-2 formation in the second half with Mata behind Torres, it was Frank Lampard whom he withdrew to make room for Nicolas Anelka and in the latter stages Romelu Lukaku came on. So far Villas-Boas seems to be carrying his team with him, even in the difficult times. He said later in his immaculate English that the players "had balls" to fight back in the second half – and he was right.
Chelsea lost the game in those first two goals of the game, and both of them were offside. Chris Smalling was offside when he headed in Ashley Young's free-kick from the left. Then, when Luis Nani took Jonny Evans' crossfield ball on his chest and set off for his brilliant run and shot for the second, he did so having come from an offside position. Villas-Boas could have chosen to kick up a stink but, five games into his Premier League career, he decided against going to war with the officials.
That said, Nani's goal was a classic. He went past Mata's half-baked challenge, picked up speed as Raul Meireles came over to intercept his run and unleashed a shot of some violence into the top-left corner of Petr Cech's goal. It was the crowning moment of Nani's performance. He was the game's outstanding player, although he was run close by De Gea and Torres too, until the latter's Ronny Rosenthal moment.
The telling stat of the day was that Nani has scored the same number of goals, 19, in his first 100 games for the club as Cristiano Ronaldo did in his, and Nani is comfortably ahead on assists, 33 to 12 over the same time frame. Yesterday Nani was as important to United as Rooney.
There was no dispute over United's third, which was made by a great forward run from Phil Jones, who opened up Chelsea and played in Nani. His backheel was intercepted by Terry but the ball ricocheted off Nani and back to Rooney, who scored. It had come entirely against the run of play, which had turned in Chelsea's favour after the second goal.
It should have killed Chelsea. If anything it may have emboldened Villas-Boas to make his decisive changes. "A very, very strange game," the Chelsea manager said later. Yet even when Torres ran on to Anelka's through ball and sent a flawless chip over De Gea you could not have imagined the ensuing chaos. On 55 minutes Jose Bosingwa ran into the back of Nani and the referee, Phil Dowd, awarded United a penalty. Rooney's slip and miss prompted a bout of impromptu gardening from the striker as he replaced the turf.
Before his big miss, Torres might have had another but De Gea saved his first effort and the striker put the second over. On 77 minutes there was a bad late challenge from Ashley Cole on Javier Hernandez as the latter tried to bury a Rooney shot that came off the post. Cole was booked but no penalty was given because Hernandez's shot had already gone into touch before connection was made. Either way it was a bad one.
In injury time Cole got back to get substitute Dimitar Berbatov's shot off the line. It was the last act to a complicated story. The momentum is undoubtedly with United, but Chelsea and their young manager are by no means finished yet.
Substitutes: Man United Valencia (Smalling, 62), Carrick (Anderson, 62), Berbatov (Hernandez, 79). Chelsea Anelka (Lampard, h-t), Lukaku (Sturridge, 69), Mikel (Meireles, 79).
Booked: Man United Valencia, Fletcher.Chelsea Cole, Ramires, Terry.Man of the match Nani. Match rating 8/10. Possession Man United 50% Chelsea 50%. Attempts on target: Man United 7 Chelsea 9.Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).