Manchester United ventured into London Towne on Sunday, attempting to win a contest that kicked off the Reds' most crucial stretch of the season. Although Stamford Bridge has been a house of horrors for United over the last decade, Sir Alex could be forgiven for a tiny bit of pre-game optimism, due both to Chelsea's erratic form this season, as well as the injury and suspension crisis that hit the Blues hard.
Chelsea Manager Andre Villas-Boas found himself having to do without Captain John Terry and midfielders Frank Lampard and Ramires due to injury, left back Ashley Cole due to suspension, and forward Didier Drogba due to his absence at the African Cup of Nations. While United has also been hit hard by the injury bug this campaign, the Reds got a rare piece of good news with the return of Ashley Young to the starting lineup. Rio Ferdinand was also seen fit to play, pairing with Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra and Rafael on defense, while Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia joined Young in midfield. David De Gea returned between the pipes, while Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney both returned to the starting eleven, as well.
Rooney began the action with a free kick that looked closer than it actually was, as United sought to steady their nerves with an immediate attack. For their part, Chelsea probed cautiously in the early going, generating a couple of early corners, as David De Gea nervously punched the ball out of reach. At the other end, Young flopped in the box looking for an early penalty, but referee Howard Webb wisely looked the other way.
The game continued at a steady tempo, as both teams clearly believed attacking to be the best form of defense. Welbeck's pace gave Chelsea centerback Gary Cahill an immediate and repeated problem, and Red eyes looked expectantly toward Webb as the last Chelsea defender tripped the United striker on his goalward run -- an easy sending off, if ever there was one -- but the referee was again unmoved, despite vehement protestations from the United sideline.
Although possession bordered 50/50, the Reds looked substantially more threatening over the game's first 20 minutes, playing the ball into space and getting into dangerous positions. In particular, Chelsea seemed to have big issues dealing with the pace of both Valencia and Welbeck. Strangely, Wayne Rooney seemed somewhat subdued in the game's first half, perhaps still suffering from the after-effects of the injury that forced him out of the Stoke game. By minute 25, though, Chelsea had gained a grip on the game, and was retaining more of the ball and pinning United back in their own end.
When Rooney unselfishly attempted to pick out Welbeck on the break, Branislav Ivanovic had just enough pace to snuff out the threat. Unable to repeatedly deal with United's raw speed on the counter, Chelsea resorted to fouling in an attempt to slow down United, not an unfamiliar tactic for the Blues. The stops and starts of the action created a choppy feel to the game, a feeling that was rudely broken by Daniel Sturridge providing a piece of individual brilliance, dribbling around Evra and in toward goal, before banging the ball of Evans' chest for an own goal and an early Chelsea lead.
Now would come a true test of the Reds' championship mentality: down a goal in a hostile environment, what could they conjure up? As if to answer the question, Young fired in a ball from a dangerous position, but Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech was able to palm the ball away from an onrushing Rooney. A minute later and it was Welbeck trying his luck, as well, but once again Cech answered the call to deny the Englishman. United's initial response was positive, but little feeling of the pre-game optimism remained with the Reds as they trudged toward the locker room down a goal, despite looking the better of the two sides for the vast majority of the first half.
Things went from bad to worse as the second half opened: Torres crossing the ball to an unmarked Juan Mata, who left De Gea with absolutely no chance as he doubled the Chelsea lead. When David Luiz added his own bobble-headed goal to make it 3-nil just a short while later, any sense of optimism was well and truly snuffed out, and the United game plan looked as if it would have to be transformed into damage control mode. In truth, the United defensive marking was shocking, with Chelsea offered two completely free headers from dangerous positions. United's defense looked frozen in place, as if the chill in the visitors' locker room left them still defrosting, and slowed down to half speed.
Sir Alex opted to respond to the carnage by introducing Paul Scholes to limit the damage; the move would pay almost immediate dividends, as United quickly and convincingly began to control -- dominate, actually -- the midfield. He may have just comeback from retirement, but with his display on Sunday afternoon Paul Scholes proved beyond a doubt that he still has more than enough class to play in the biggest of all games.
After being yelled at by his Manager for not tracking back on defense, Sturridge followed half of his boss' command by sprinting the length of the pitch, only to then haul down Patrice Evra in the box and allow the Reds the tiniest foothold back into the game. While referee Webb pointed to the spot and Rooney converted the penalty kick to pull back a goal, Chelsea still controlled the game and the scoreline, and United would be forced to take chances in an effort to force a way their back into the argument.
De Gea denied speedy Chelsea winger Juan Mata to keep the Blues within reach, the Spaniard holding the line on one of the few balls to that point in the game on which he had a chance. But the Reds' fight back continued: Rooney was just wide on one occasion, and on target on the other but denied by Cech. But when Welbeck was tripped by Ivanovic on yet a third chance in the box, referee Webb was forced again to point to the spot, as the Bridge grew quiet -- very quiet -- when the margin was reduced to a single goal by Rooney's second successful conversion of the afternoon. The goal was a just reward for Rooney's inspired second half play, as if the United striker was intent on putting on a one-man show about desire.
When Chlesea's new introduction Oriol Romeu gave the ball away in his own half, Chicharito was played through, but the Mexican was unable to hit the target with a chance to tie the score. Fernando Torres found himself unable to take advantage of a similar situation at the other end, but while Hernandez' shot was wide, his fellow Spanish speaker was unable to even get the ball out from under his legs.
With ten minutes to go, Sir Alex looked at his watch for not the last time, as Chelsea sat back to defend and invited United pressure; the Blues looked more interested in holding their lead and springing the occasional counter-attack. Rooney was denied yet again by Cech, but when the rebound fell to Giggs, it was Chicharito who rose highest to bury the Welshman's cross in the back of the net and tie the score. Chelsea looked stunned as the tables were turned 180 degrees.
Both sides threw haymakers as the clock ticked down, but Cheslea were not done just yet: Luiz conned Webb for a free kick from a dangerous spot, and all six-feet-four-inches of United 'keeper De Gea were called into use as he tipped a sure Mata free kick just wide of goal, the Spaniard defying the critics with a Man-of-the-Match save. As if once wasn't enough, De Gea was forced to repeat the feat on Gary Cahill's laser right at the final whistle, as the beleaguered Spaniard made a statement that was echoed by his teammates' at full time: inside that Red shirt beats the heart of champion.