'Dearie me', stunned Ferguson sees Chelsea gun down Manchester United
Chelsea 2 Manchester United 1: The result may have drawn nods of grim satisfaction from those —and there are many — who felt Wayne Rooney was adding insult to injury merely by being on the pitch last night.
Natural justice it may have been for the England striker's escape from disciplinary action for his elbow against Wigan's James McCarthy but on a broader level this could well prove to be the moment that Manchester United's luck ran out.
After a season where time and again Sir Alex Ferguson's men have managed to turning a looming defeat into a draw or better, this time the Nike boot was well and truly on the other foot.
Rooney's decisiveness and mind-boggling heroics by Edwin van der Sar looked to have kept United on course for a victory that would have extended the gap at the top of the Barclays Premier League.
Instead, a soft penalty, hammered home by Frank Lampard, saw Ferguson's men beaten and to make it worse Nemanja Vidic, the Serbian-hewed rock of their campaign, was sent off to mean that United will be without both first-choice centre-backs at Anfield on Sunday.
Chelsea’s otherwise impressive defender David Luiz, who scored the equaliser, was also feeling relieved that his bodycheck on Rooney didn’t earn him a second yellow card — and a dismissal.
The statistics will no doubt show that Chelsea deserved their 2-1 victory, but for much of this match it was United, with Rooney at the fore, who controlled affairs.
The striker once again demonstrated that nothing inspires him more than being public enemy number one, even if at Stamford Bridge there was competition for that position from Ashley Cole, the man who makes interns wish they were working for Bill Clinton.
While Chelsea laboured, Paul Scholes was the oil in United's engine, lubricating midfield with smooth passing. Rooney should have scored early in the first half when he completely mistimed a header from Nani's cross, the ball bouncing harmlessly off his shoulder while Ferguson was already poised hands in air to celebrate.
There was no mistake soon afterwards as no fewer than four Chelsea players stood off the striker allowing him to ram a shot low past Petr Cech from 20 yards.
Chelsea looked bereft of ideas, even relying on Ashley Cole to take a 25-yard direct free-kick rather than Lampard or Fernando Torres.
“Shoot!” yelled the home fans, while work experience students around the country dived for cover.
Finally Chelsea started to get on top but ‘same old United,' the home fans must have thought, as Vidic and van der Sar contrived last-ditch interventions that were barely credible as Chelsea were denied.
It took something special from Luiz, having to wait an age for the ball to drop before lashing it home, for Chelsea to get back on terms.
Ferguson threw on Ryan Giggs, one day shy of the 20th anniversary of his debut, to equal Bobby Charlton's record of 606th league appearances, but it proved to be a forgettable night for the Welsh maestro.
While Luiz rode his luck and managed to stay on the pitch despite crude fouls on Rooney and Javier Hernandez, fortune deserted Chris Smalling — who was enticed into mild contact with Yuri Zhirkov and his dramatic tumble persuaded Martin Atkinson to point to the spot and Lampard did the rest.
“Dearie me,” said Ferguson afterwards, with some justification and perhaps a foreboding that more testing times are now looming.
We have spent the best part of three months at Stamford Bridge wondering what happened to the team that took English football by storm but in the second half last night, for the first time in a long time, Chelsea looked like Chelsea again.
The win for Carlo Ancelotti’s side has opened up the title race and while it is perhaps too late for them, in fourth place and 12 points behind United with a game in hand, at least they have proved, as their manager proclaimed last week, that this team is not dead.
Overwhelmed in the first half, stoic in the second and ruthless when they had to be, Chelsea have insisted upon having their say in the title race again.
There is no room for error now if the champions are to launch a serious push in the remaining 11 games to defend their title and that may yet be beyond them.
Their win last night from one goal behind at least announces them as a force to be reckoned with again.
You have to go back to May 2008 for the last time Sir Alex Ferguson picked the same team for two consecutive games, it is part of what makes his selections so difficult to second-guess.
Despite the controversy, Luiz showed that he has the kind of qualities football supporters admire in a defender and it has taken him little time to win the favour of the Chelsea home crowd. Not many of them would have bet that he would score his first goal for the club before his fellow January signing, Fernando Torres.
And Lampard, when asked if Chelsea were now firmly back in the title race, said: “I don't know about firmly back in it, it's still a lot of points.
“But all we could do today was win the game, try to show a signal that we're trying to get back in it and close that gap.
“We did that today but there's a long way to go.