Manchester United were beaten for only the second time in the Premier League this season, as they fell to a 2-1 defeat at Chelsea.
United had lead at half-time through a 25-yard strike from Wayne Rooney, but a stunning piece of technique from Brazilian defender David Luiz, as he planted a terrific volley past Edwin van Der Sar, got Chelsea on level terms in the second half.
And after Chris Smalling, continuing to deputise for the injured Rio Ferdinand, conceded a penalty, Frank Lampard smashed the resulting kick into the roof of the net, to earn Chelsea the three points, before Nemanja Vidic, the United captain, was sent off for a second yellow card in injury time.
Pre-game and Sir Alex Ferguson named the same starting XI that had won 4-0 at Wigan, whilst Carlo Ancelotti went with a strike partnership of £50m Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka, with Didier Drogba left on the bench, as Chelsea reverted to a previously untried 4-4-2 formation.
The Blues started the better of the two sides and after Torres had seen a goal ruled out for a foul by Luiz, Florent Malouda forced Edwin van der Sar into the first save of the match, but his weak effort was easily saved.
An open, enthralling game ensued, with both sides attacking, looking for the win, United to put seven points between themselves and second placed Arsenal, and Chelsea to get themselves back onto the periphery of the title race.
But after United had weathered an early Chelsea storm, they began to take control of the first half, and they took the lead just before the half hour.
Nani, the flamboyant Portugese winger, slipped a pass to Wayne Rooney 25 yards from goal, and when David Luiz and the rest of the Chelsea defence stood off and allowed the England striker to turn, Rooney planted a powerful shot past Petr Cech’s right hand, into the bottom corner, his fifth goal in as many Premier League matches.
The goal seemed to bring out the desperation in Ancelotti’s side, and they lacked the necessary composure to trouble United.
Torres and Anelka both dragged long-range efforts wide, whilst Ashley Cole, who was urged to “shoot” by the crowd at every available opportunity, hit a free-kick over the bar, after Vidic had been booked for bringing down Michael Essien.
On the stroke of half-time, Chelsea should have levelled, and would have, but for a tremendous piece of instinctive goalkeeping from Edwin van der Sar.
Frank Lampard fired in a low free-kick which was spilled by the former Ajax, Fulham and Juventus ‘keeper.
However, on the follow-up, no more than three yards out, Branislav Ivanovic, the Chelsea right-back, somehow contrived to not put the ball beyond the Dutch goalkeeper, who threw up a hand to divert the ball away from goal, showing the kind of reactions that explain why MUTV have started a campaign for the 40-year-old to put off his impending retirement.
In the second half Chelsea came out playing at an increased tempo, and with Essien and the increasingly influential Ramires, starting to justify his £18m price tag, beginning to take charge of proceedings, it wasn’t long before they were level.
After a free-kick was cleared, Ramires planted the ball back into the penalty area, and when United failed to clear, Brazilian centre-back David Luiz, a January buy from Benfica, smashed a perfectly-executed volley past a motionless van der Sar.
With Chelsea sensing a potential victory, and United also keen to take all three points the match became more stretched and chances came and went at either end.
Wayne Rooney, cutting in from the left hand side, failed to curl a finish past Petr Cech, whilst Didier Drogba, on for the ineffective Anelka, blasted a free-kick wide, and Ivanovic turned a shot over the crossbar.
Ryan Giggs replaced Paul Scholes to make his 606th league appearance for United, equalling the record set by Sir Bobby Charlton at the same ground in 1973, but was unable to match the impact made on proceedings as that by a Chelsea substitute, Yuri Zhirkov.
After referee Martin Atkinson missed a blatant block by Luiz on Rooney, which would have meant a second yellow card for the defender, a foul by Smalling on Zhirkov, the Russian midfielder, in the 78th minute resulted in a penalty to the home side.
Frank Lampard, having missed two of his previous five spot-kicks, stepped up, and drilled his shot into the roof of the net to put Chelsea ahead.
The Blues then looked increasingly assured, and after holding the ball in Manchester United territory for the majority of injury-time, a sprightly burst from the spring-heeled Ramires took him past Vidic, but the Serbian defender pulled down the Brazilian. A red card ensued for the United captain, who will now miss Sunday’s trip to Anfield when United take on their most bitter rivals, Liverpool.
For Chelsea, the win takes them to within 12 points of league-leaders United, with a game in hand and a trip to Old Trafford still to come, and much closer a more likely third place finish, which brings with it a place in the Champions League group stages next season.
For United, with the spectre of Arsenal looming larger over their shoulder, a return to winning ways can’t come quick enough, but there would have certainly been other places where Sir Alex Ferguson would have preferred to take his side, than a boisterous Anfield on Sunday lunch-time.