Chelsea's Victory Opens Wide The Title Race

These clubs are so well-matched that only controversy can separate them. An initially listless Chelsea equalised through David Luiz and then won the game with a dubious penalty in the 79th minute. Frank Lampard slipped the ball to a substitute, Yuri Zhirkov, and he appeared to run into Chris Smalling. The referee, Martin Atkinson, deemed it to be a foul and Lampard crashed the spot-kick straight into the middle of the goal.

In stoppage time the United centre-half Nemanja Vidic was sent off for a second yellow card, for a foul on Ramires. He will miss Sunday's match against Liverpool at Anfield. Arsenal's interests were well served too. They are still four points behind United, the Premier League leaders, and now they have a game in hand.

United, without a win on this ground since 2002, were trying to make up for lost time. From the off their style had an urgency that promised much and the opener came from Wayne Rooney after half an hour. Chelsea may have been the most disgruntled of all that the forward had not been sent off for elbowing Wigan's James McCarthy at the weekend, but their own failings were the true issue before the interval.

Carlo Ancelotti's selection looked bold, with Fernando Torres paired in attack with Nicolas Anelka, but their 4-4-2 system was an irrelevance when all the energy and appetite belonged to United. At that stage the main thought of the home supporters might have been that there is still much rebuilding to take place. There was verve to the visitors and Nani, on the left, caused disquiet. One piercing cross went low through the goalmouth, with no one able to apply a touch.

When United took the lead, consistent with Chelsea's general sluggishness at that stage, Branislav Ivanovic allowed Rooney to turn and hit a low 25-yarder that was too much for the goalkeeper, Petr Cech. Pride was meant to be at stake but the visitors' title ambition seemed then to trump either Chelsea's pride or their desire to grasp, at least, fourth place and its route to the Champions League.

Their insipid domestic form appeared to be lingering. Having played just two matches at Stamford Bridge since the middle of January, Chelsea had not been enjoying home comforts. Even so, the benefit of playing on their own ground is not as great as it was. Those fixtures saw a 1-0 loss to Liverpool and a defeat by Everton on a penalty shoot-out in the FA Cup.

Chelsea have seemed a team winding down. The necessary rebuilding is just beginning, after the signings of Torres and David Luiz. While there is no prospect of them retaining the title, this fixture above all is the one in which they normally demonstrate their status.

United understood that this could be a week of defining moments. A reaction was anticipated from Chelsea. Ancelotti indicated with his formation that boldness was at the centre of his thoughts. It must therefore have dismaying that the outlook of his players was, to begin with, so insipid. They had to show that the knack of rising to a prestigious occasion remains at the core of their being.

The merits of Torres and Anelka as a combination could not be debated when the midfield so rarely ferried the ball to them. However, though Chelsea continued to sideline the forwards, in the 54th minute they pulled level.

The central defenders were still around United's penalty area following a corner and when Michael Essien flighted the ball into the middle, a knock-down from Branislav Ivanovic was rifled past Edwin van der Sar at his near post by David Luiz. It was his first goal for Chelsea. His team-mates would love to suppose that such an exploit promises a revitalisation for them all. Luiz next caught the eye with a foul on Rooney that brought him a yellow card. United had not been parted from their desire to carry the game to Chelsea.

The introduction of Didier Drogba for Anelka indicated Ancelotti's intent to maintain freshness in the forward line. If the match was not particularly distinguished it held the attention because of the glaring desire of the visitors, as much as hosts, to win it.

When Rooney went past Essien he put an aimless ball through an unmanned area of the goalmouth. The attitude of each club was uncompromising. Just as Ancelotti had sent on Drogba, Sir Alex Ferguson put Dimitar Berbatov and Ryan Giggs on to the field, with the Welshman equalling Sir Bobby Charlton's record for United of 606 league appearances.

Even so, the hunger of these sides came from men who know that history is made with the winning of matches.



Exclusively by Kevin McCarra

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