In a dazzling affair, the Blues were often dominant yet conceded three in the first half, as we saw the good and the bad of their Spanish 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.
After just two minutes, Ashley Cole volleyed over the area to the back post, finding Ramires free to shoot, but the under-pressure de Gea produced a good save with his outstretched leg.
The home side, though, took their 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.
The Blues’ heads did not go down, though, and they pushed forward in search of a quick response. Under pressure from Bosingwa, Anderson lamely gave the ball straight to the onrushing Torres, who got around the last defender before slicing wide, De Gea having closed the angle well.
The Blues should have equalised 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.
Chelsea were made to pay for their 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, 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.
The visitors knocked on the door again as a rejuvenated-looking Torres spectacularly evaded two defenders and let off a vicious shot, but de Gea was equal to it, with the striker then blasting the rebound over the bar.
With Chelsea coming ever closer, they might have been killed off once again when, as Terry missed his interception on Evra’s low cross, Rooney looked certain to score from close range, only to see his effort bobble off the post in a huge let-off for the Blues. As Javier Hernandez pounced on the rebound, firing wide, he was scythed down by Ashley Cole. No penalty was given as the shot had already been dispatched out of play but the left-back was lucky only to garner a yellow card.
And suddenly the moment came. 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, and United edge two points clear at the top of the table.