United were excellent at Stamford Bridge, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s near-perfect game-plan only went unrewarded after the Reds conceded a goal from a highly dubious second-half free-kick, which led to Chelsea skipper John Terry’s winner.
The Reds had bossed possession for large periods of the game and looked the stronger, more confident side – with Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney both outstanding. United at least deserved a draw, but the overriding feeling is of injustice, made worse that the Reds slip to third and Chelsea boast a five-point lead at the top of the league.
Chelsea are formidable at Stamford Bridge, with a 100 per cent home record under Carlo Ancelotti this season and only one goal conceded. United also haven’t won in West London since April 2002, a record Sir Alex was keen to arrest. The opportunity was there to return to the league’s summit, and though most outsiders predicted the Reds would have no joy, Sir Alex had his men fired up to prove any doubters wrong.
But he would have to do it without either first-choice central defender, as troublesome calf problems kept Rio Ferdinand out and Nemanja Vidic on the bench. That meant a centre-half pairing of Wes Brown and Jonny Evans up against the pace and power of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka. They coped admirably with the task.
It was a positive and pacy start from both teams and the Reds looked full of belief. Chelsea got in behind United’s defence on the right in the first five minutes, with Ivanovic eventually forcing a save from Edwin van der Sar, but other than that the Reds dominated possession and dictated play early on.
The match became far more open than is usual for United-Chelsea games of recent times – and all the more entertaining for it. One example arrived for United’s best chance of the half on 29 minutes when Fletcher’s arced pass scythed open the home side’s defence.