Inspirational Rooney keeps Manchester United's title dream alive
A draw at home to Manchester United given his team's recent run of results would not have been a bad outcome for Andre Villas-Boas, all things considered. A draw at home to United having led the game by three goals, well, that is a different proposition altogether.
It was the hope that did for Chelsea in the end which is why the men in blue shirts were booed by sections of their own support when the whistle blew for full-time. They had led United by three goals with 32 minutes of the match remaining and this promised, at one point, to be the definitive win of Villas-Boas' eight months in charge. In the end, it felt like it offered up as many question as it did answers.
When David Luiz scored his team's third goal on 51 minutes, the club were looking at one of those watershed moments. This was a Chelsea team without John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole and they had a victory over English football's most-longstanding power within their grasp. This was the new era that the club had envisaged that Villas-Boas would deliver for them.
Never during the Premier League years have Chelsea failed to turn a three-goal lead into a victory but they were up against a United side that refuses to relinquish its place in the title race. There is a softness to Sir Alex Ferguson's team, especially in the way in which they conceded twice in six minutes at the start of the second half, but they still have Wayne Rooney who embodies their old refusal to surrender.
Rooney benefited from two penalties awarded by Howard Webb against Chelsea in the second half and neither of them were anything like open-and-shut decisions. Villas-Boas was generous in saying that the first, given for Daniel Sturridge's challenge on Patrice Evra, was "an obvious penalty" when it looked anything but.
The second of Webb's two penalty awards 11 minutes later was "very, very dubious", according to Villas-Boas, and that was putting it mildly. Danny Welbeck hung off for an age to make the most of minimal contact from Branislav Ivanovic and when it came he certainly made the most of it.
With Rooney in such decisive form from the penalty spot, these were vital moments for United and put them in a position to gain the momentum for Javier Hernandez's equaliser.
The draw leaves United two points shy of Manchester City at the top of the Premier League which is no disaster. The league leaders lost their game at Stamford Bridge in December and United escaped with a point. There's has been a sometimes chaotic pursuit of City but since those back-to-back defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle, Ferguson's team have won three and drawn one game. Beat Liverpool at home on Saturday and they will go top for one day at least.
It was not Webb's finest game but for a slow-burner it exploded into action in the second half. Possibly pre-empting the softness of the penalties awarded to his own team, Ferguson railed against Webb's failure not to dismiss Gary Cahill in the first half when he fouled Welbeck. It looked like a penalty but the angle of Welbeck's run appeared to be taking him away from goal.
Yet for a game that had such an unpromising start this built into a tremendous climax. David de Gea, who started his first league game for United since the defeat to Blackburn Rovers on New Year's Eve, flapped at a cross on seven minutes. Fernando Torres, playing alone up front in a 4-2-3-1 formation, looked effective against Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, but until Chelsea took the lead it was a game without a theme.
That was apart from the chants from the home fans directed at Ferdinand in relation to his brother Anton and his part in the racial-abuse charge against Terry. It was unpleasant and unnecessary and it will embarrass those Chelsea supporters who took no part in it.
The first Chelsea goal went in off Evans whom the ball struck last, but it was Patrice Evra who Daniel Sturridge left behind on the right wing before he cut in down the touchline. The Chelsea man beat United's left-back from what was a standing start and hit his cross into a congested area where it struck Evans and beat De Gea.
That goal was flattering for Chelsea who had not had the best of the game before then. Rooney and Ashley Young, making his first start in 12 games, both had shots saved from Petr Cech before Chelsea came back at them with a vengeance after the break. The second Chelsea goal was magnificent: 24 seconds gone and a cross from Torres to the back post where Juan Mata hit the ball crisply with his left foot into the top of De Gea's goal.
Before United had recovered, Luiz headed in Mata's ball from the right with six minutes of the half played, via a deflection off the shoulder of Ferdinand. This should have been the moment from which they wrapped the game up. The trouble with Villas-Boas' team is that for a manager so preoccupied with tactical theory they do lack a certain discipline.
Villas-Boas had already berated Sturridge once before for failing to track back when, in a fit of exuberance, the player did just that and fouled Evra for the first penalty. It was noticeable that when Sturridge was substituted he came off with great reluctance, not seeking to acknowledge his manager on the way. He should have done himself a favour and considered why it was that he was being withdrawn.
By the time Rooney had dispatched the second of the penalties, following Ivanovic's foul on Welbeck, Chelsea were well and truly struggling. Nevertheless they did have chances. De Gea saved from Michael Essien and then Torres spent too long with the ball in the United area without unleashing a shot and was eventually dispossessed.
The goal from Hernandez came after Cech pushed a shot away and Ryan Giggs recycled the ball on the left wing. Suddenly it looked like a defence that was missing John Terry. Hernandez was between Cahill and Luiz when he twisted and directed his header past Cech. De Gea made two good late saves from a Mata free-kick and Cahill but no winner for Chelsea. Hence the boos from the home fans which did not tell the whole story.