In a dazzling and shocking affair, the Blues were often dominant yet conceded three in the first half, as we saw the good and the bad of their £50 million striker
Sir Alex Ferguson followed through on his vow to restore David de Gea between the sticks having given Anders Lindegaard a run-out against Benfica in midweek. Darren Fletcher also started despite only having played 60 minutes since returning from a long lay-off with a mystery virus. Chelsea, meanwhile, stuck with the misfiring Torres up front.
The home side, though, took its first opportunity – after Jose Bosingwa brought down Ashley Young on the United left, the winger swung the free-kick into the box, and the anonymous Chelsea defence allowed Smalling acres of space in which to head home, although TV replays suggested he was slightly offside.
Chelsea was dominating the attacking play in search of an equalizer, but a relatively rare United foray forward was nearly decisive when Nani clipped a cross into the center of the box towards Rooney, but Meireles made a crucial interception.
The Blues should have equalized immediately after, as, on the break, Juan Mata fed Torres through the inside-left channel, who pulled it across the box into the path of Ramires, but the midfielder made a mess of a shot he should have buried and de Gea snatched it.
And sure enough, Chelsea was made to pay for its variety of squandered chances, when, out of nowhere, Jonny Evans brought Nani into play with a long cross-field pass. The winger moved slowly and deliberately inside a compliant Mata before unleashing an unstoppable shot into the top corner from 25 yards to throw Andre Villas-Boas’ plans into further chaos – and again, technology intimated that Nani was offside when he received the ball.
A few minutes later, just as Chelsea considered regrouping at half-time, Phil Jones drove relentlessly forward into the penalty area and, as he fell to the floor, the ball popped up out of the mess of players into the path of Rooney, who could not have missed, and so Chelsea, for long periods the superior side, perplexingly reached the break 3-0 down.
Villas-Boas reacted by bringing on Nicolas Anelka for Lampard, and it brought immediate results as the Frenchman played Torres through precisely from the left, and the Spaniard finally scored his second Chelsea goal, a beautiful chip over the helpless de Gea.
Suddenly, with Chelsea pouring forward, United broke and Nani rattled the crossbar with a monstrous shot, but any disappointment was erased when he was awarded a penalty, Bosingwa judged to have brought him down, although it appeared that he got as much of the ball as the player. But, to shock, Rooney’s comical slip from the spot saw him launch the ball skywards, with the watching John Terry reminded of one night in Moscow.
The Blues kept pushing but stuttered a little and the next real chance fell again to the hosts, as Jones rose to meet Young’s cross from the short corner, but the ex-Blackburn man’s header was weak and wide. A corner at the other end then saw substitute Romelu Lukaku look for a second as if he had broken free from Patrice Evra to poke home, but the left-back somehow got back in time to block him.
Later, Ramires removed the entire United back line from the equation with a brilliant through-ball for Torres, who rounded de Gea and had to score, yet somehow contrived to shoot unacceptably wide in the face of an impossibly easy open goal.
As the match moved into stoppage time, Dimitar Berbatov seemed certain to bury a fourth, fed by Rooney on the break, but a heroic last-ditch run from Cole was enough to reach the ball in time. But Chelsea could not summon enough to find a comeback before the game's end.