It is too early in the season for this to be a seminal match, but for an hour yesterday it felt like it could be.
Manchester United, showing the form they have been searching for during the campaign's opening weeks, appeared poised to inflict Chelsea's first home League defeat for four-and-a-half years. That would have been a resounding psychological blow worth even more than the three precious points at stake.
Then Chelsea's resilience, which seems part of their DNA regardless of who is in the dugout, surfaced again. Trailing to Ji-Sung Park's 18th-minute goal, they had lacked the fluency previously displayed under Luiz Felipe Scolari. But the best teams graft when the craft is missing and Chelsea pushed the champions back by force of will.
Salomon Kalou levelled and United were hanging on at the final whistle which came just as Rio Ferdinand flattened Didier Drogba on the edge of the box. With Ferdinand's second yellow card seemingly imminent, and Chelsea anticipating a dangerously placed free-kick, Mike Riley signalled that time was up.
The result leaves United 15th, between Wigan and Bolton, with five points from four games. More pertinently they remain six points adrift of Chelsea, but with a game in hand, having already played two of their most demanding fixtures, here and at Liverpool last weekend. Chelsea are second, level with Liverpool and a point behind Arsenal. Those two teams will be happiest with this result, and the fact that Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Edwin van der Sar all suffered injury. Van der Sar's may be the most significant as United last week lost reserve goalkeeper Ben Foster to an ankle injury for six weeks.
Sir Alex Ferguson picked a team designed to stifle Chelsea, but with orders to attack them. Owen Hargreaves and Park were stationed on the flanks of a midfield four with a view to pinning back Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, who have been such an outlet for Chelsea this season. The intent, though, was offensive, United perhaps surprising Chelsea with their attacking approach, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher having chances in the early minutes.
This was backed up by tackling fierce enough to suggest Ferguson's pre-match address had reminded his men how they had been second to the ball too often at Anfield. Scholes committed three fouls in the first 10 minutes and was the first of seven United names taken by Riley – to one of Chelsea. United will be fined by the Football Association for exceeding five cautions.
United's initial ascendancy was helped by Chelsea having to reshape their midfield after Deco became the weekend's third player – after Middlesbrough's Mido and Abdoulaye Méité of West Bromwich Albion – to be injured in the warm-up. Michael Ballack replaced him, his first start since missing four weeks with a foot injury. Deco has been Chelsea's midfield fulcrum and with Ballack taking time to settle their passing lacked cohesion. Then Carvalho had to limp off after 12 minutes to be replaced by Alex.
Outplayed though they were in the opening half, Chelsea should have scored first. Joe Cole, running on to Nicolas Anelka's flick-on, turned Patrice Evra, advanced on Van der Sar and to general astonishment steered his shot into the side netting. It proved an expensive miss as, 10 minutes later, United went ahead. Evra fed Dimitar Berbatov who laid the ball back to Rooney. He picked out Evra, who had continued his run into the box. The France international shrugged off Bosingwa and cut the ball back to Berbatov. Cech parried his side-footed shot and Park rolled in the rebound.
United had already gone close from an even unlikelier source. Ferdinand, having dispossessed Anelka and fed Berbatov, kept running and was played in by Rooney. Cech turned his shot onto the crossbar and over.
It was 10 minutes before Chelsea threatened to level, but through a defensive slip, Neville leaving a headed back-pass short. Florent Malouda just won a 50-50 race with Van der Sar but the Dutchman blocked his toe-poke with his chest before crashing into Malouda. On balance, Riley was right not to give a penalty and show a red card but the goalkeeper soon departed anyway, bruised in the collision.
Drogba came on at the restart, soon followed by Cristiano Ronaldo. The former had the greater impact with his physical presence and ability to hold the ball up. Gradually, Chelsea began to create chances. Ballack released Joe Cole over the top. This time he went for power, and blasted the ball at Tomasz Kuszczak's chest. Anelka managed to miskick when presented with gilt-edged chances by Bosingwa and Joe Cole, then Ballack shot wide.
Chelsea's profligacy should have been punished when Ronaldo released Rooney with 13 minutes left. He hit the side netting. Two minutes later, after Rooney had fouled Ashley Cole, Kalou exploited slack marking to head in John Obi Mikel's free-kick.
That there were no further goals was due to a last-ditch saving tackle by Neville on Kalou, and an extraordinary block by Alex from Fletcher's shot. Those two moments, as much as the artistry shown at times by red and blue, underlined why the title is likely to go to one of these teams for the fifth successive year.
Goals: Park (18) 0-1; Kalou (80) 1-1.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Bosingwa, Carvalho (Alex, 12), Terry, A Cole; Ballack (Kalou, 74), Mikel, Lampard; J Cole, Anelka, Malouda (Drogba, h-t). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Bridge, Ferriera, Belletti.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar (Kuszczak, 32); Neville, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Hargreaves, Fletcher, Scholes (Ronaldo, 55), Park (O'Shea, 75); Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Brown, Giggs, Nani, Tevez.
Referee: M Riley (West Yorkshire)
Booked: Chelsea Mikel; Manchester United Scholes, Ferdinand, Neville, Berbatov, Rooney, Evra, Ronaldo.
Man of the match: Rooney.