By Wayne Veysey at Stamford Bridge
It was an epic duel that lived up to the hype and could have a direct bearing on the destination of the Premier League title.
Chelsea dug deep and benefited from some generous refereeing to complete a memorable comeback, while Manchester United crumbled late on after appearing at half-time to be ready to try the crown for size.
Goal.com UK analyses what we learned from a match that blows the title race wide open.
Luiz is worth the admission fee alone
So eagerly has he taken to new surroundings that it is hard to believe this was David Luiz’s full Stamford Bridge debut.
What a majestic footballer he already looks and what great value for £21 million. He had given notice of his talent with a 15-minute cameo against Liverpool and then a sublime display at Fulham that was only spoilt by conceding a rash last-minute penalty when he needlessly upended Clint Dempsey.
Against the league leaders, he secured cult hero status not only with some thrilling forays beyond the halfway line, a Beckenbauer-esque comfort in possession and a fabulously executed equaliser but a competitiveness and desire to be in the thick of action that marks him out as an outrageously gifted player.
And we’re talking about a centre-back, not a centre-forward. In truth, Luiz was extremely fortunate not to be sent off. Chelsea’s spaghetti-haired centre-back got into three terrible tangles in one-on-one situations and showed there is a dark side to his game. He was reprieved for body-checking Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney and also scything down the Englishman, although he was eventually booked for another challenge on Hernandez.
Luiz is a diamond that requires some polishing. But he is going to be great fun to watch.
There is still life in Chelsea’s old guard
The obituaries were being prepared for Chelsea’s four-man midfield at half-time. Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were completely over-run in the centre as United expertly took advantage of the space between the hosts’ defensive and midfield lines and the absence of a holding midfielder. By some distance, Ramires had been their most distinguished midfielder in the opening 45 minutes.
At half-time, Ancelotti told his players to be more pro-active at closing down space. It worked. Essien, so ineffective before the break, was roused into something like his old self and led the revival alongside Lampard, who might have been at his most effective when the ball was dead but never flagged in his desire to drag Chelsea out of the abyss.
With John Terry and Ashley Cole tenacious and diligent in defence and Petr Cech excellent in goal bar some suspect positioning for Rooney’s opener, Chelsea proved there is still life in the old guard.
Rooney and Cole show there is some good in bad boys
Cole endured the predictable cries of ‘shooooot!’ whenever he touched the ball and Rooney was the victim of some less than flattering jibes.
But on a night of such thrills and spills, nobody took the latest indiscretions of two notorious re-offenders too seriously. The game was played at too breakneck a pace and with too much riding on the outcome to worry too much about how they had both been protected by their vast celebrity after using a fire-arm and an elbow as offensive weapons.
Neither seemed too fazed by the latest spotlight to be thrust in their direction.
Cole defended with complete conviction against the feisty but one-dimensional efforts of Darren Fletcher and made some excellent bursts forward when his side controlled possession at the start and end of the match. Had his 45th minute free-kick been placed the other side of the bar, the headline writers would have had a field day.
The best marksman of the two on the night was Rooney. His poorly directed header early on was another example of errant 2010-11 finishing but United’s talisman was a dangerous creative force all evening. His goal was beautifully taken and the manner in which he frequently used his power and speed to threaten Chelsea’s goal from a deep-lying striking role was hugely encouraging after such a dismal 12 months.
Smalling offers hope United can cope at Anfield
United will be without their slab of Serbian rock at Anfield on Sunday. Nemanja Vidic’s stoppage time red card rules him out of the trip to arch-rivals Liverpool and Sir Alex Ferguson has said Rio Ferdinand will not feature, either.
Although some cynics may not be convinced Ferdinand will miss out until they are handed the United team-sheet, the absence of the blue-chip defensive pair will be a source of anxiety to their fans.
Vidic has proved this season that he is indispensable at the club. But Chris Smalling has done enough since Ferdinand’s latest injury to suggest a glittering future for his club and country.
He was as calm and assured against Chelsea’s three celebrated attackers as he had been in the derby win against Manchester City and his inexperience was only really evident when Yuri Zhirkov lulled him into conceding a penalty.
Smalling can cope just as well at Anfield, although the giant hole alongside him created by Vidic’s absence will be difficult to fill. Ferguson has already nominated Wes Brown, on the bench against Chelsea and the starter of only two Premier League games this season, as his centre-back partner, which could be interesting if Andy Carroll is involved at some point.
Four-four-two is fun
Both sides fielded 4-4-2 systems that could have come straight out of a Sky Sports Years 1990s highlights reel. No midfield destroyers, no lone strikers and no congestion in the central acres.
The result was more space for the creative players to cause damage and a more open end product. Those who had feared that Rooney would be shunted out to the left wing and Hernandez or Dimitar Berbatov would operate as a targetman were thankfully mistaken.
Ferguson ripped off the tactical straitjacket that has negated so many of United’s marquee fixtures in recent years and treated viewers to the toned, muscular powerhouse that never takes a backward step.
With John Obi Mikel, who was due to be on the bench, unavailable after picking up an injury in the warm-up, the space between their midfield and defence, patrolled not so long ago by Claude Makelele, was a protection-free zone.
The result was a thunderous game devoid of caution and which demonstrated the best of British football. Long may it continue.