Two Wayne Rooney’s penalties and a late equaliser by Javier Hernandez saw United snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat, after having been 3-0 down at one stage, while David DeGea produced two outstanding saves deep in injury time to deny Chelsea and earn United a deserved point on a bitterly cold afternoon in West London.
United, looking for a first league win at Chelsea since 2002, welcomed back Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young but were forced to replace Chris Smalling, after the former Fulham man fell victim of an injury in training.
DeGea, much criticised after his performance at Anfield seven days ago, regained his spot between the posts, with Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans and Evra at the back; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick and Young were deployed in midfield, with Rooney and Welbeck up-front.
Chelsea were without the injured John Terry – Chelsea fans booed Ferdinand throughout the game, although what his fault is supposed to be remains everyone’s guess. Perhaps standing by your brother who’s allegedly being subject to racial abuse is not “in” in this part of the capital – and Ashley Cole among others, meaning that both teams had to field makeshift back fours.
Stamford Bridge hasn’t been a happy ground for United lately – last season’s 1-0 in the Champions League quarter finals proving the exception rather than the rule – but they started with verve, bossing the game like they had done against Liverpool a week ago.
United felt they should have had a penalty – or at least a freekick – when Cahill pulled Welbeck down on the edge of the box.
Replays showed that the contact started outside the box and, had it been given, it would have seen Chelsea down to 10 men. Howard Webb, however, waved play on.
United seemed in control when, against the run of play, Chelsea struck.
Sturridge received the ball in the area, turned Evra way too easily and look to deliver the ball across the goal.
The ball took a deflection off DeGea’s foot onto Jonny Evans’ chest before ending up in the back of the net.
As far as fortuitous goals go, this was right at the top of the list.
United were close to equalise just before half-time, when Young, Rooney and Welbeck forced good saves from Cech.
If United had gone back to the dressing room finding themselves behind because of bad luck, they had nobody else to blame for coming undone in the first five minutes of the second half.
First, straight after the restart, Torres was allowed way too much space on the left; the former Liverpool man floated in a ball at the far post which was beautifully met by Mata’s left foot volley that left DeGea no chance.
Then, five minutes later, Luiz rose to meet Mata’s freekick, his header taking a big deflection off Ferdinand’s back before flying past a helpless DeGea.
United’s back four was at fault for both goals, with poor marking leaving DeGea virtually no chance in both occasions.
Against City in October, facing a similar situation, United had thrown caution to the wind, ending up conceding six goals. Here, they stuck to the basics and regrouped.
Ferguson introduced Hernandez for Young, a move that would prove vital in the context of the game.
With 58 minutes gone, Evra decided to turn his afternoon for the better as he sprinted ahead of Sturridge in the box; the former Bolton man made no contact with the ball while clipping the Frenchman’s right foot.
Ten minutes later United were awarded another penalty, as Welbeck was tripped in the box by Ivanovic, after some brilliant work by Hernandez had set up the England striker.
In truth, Welbeck left his leg out long enough to make contact with Ivanovic’s foot.
Rooney made no mistake, slotting the penalty in the bottom right corner this time.
United were well and truly back in the game and poured men forward with Scholes, who had replaced Rafael with Valencia moving at rightback, orchestrating the play from midfield.
United piling the pressure meant that they were leaving room for Chelsea to counter attack and Torres inexplicably elected to dribble Evans when he should have shot, only for Valencia to clear the danger.
Like they have done time and again in the past, United looked set to conjure a late equaliser, as Chelsea sat back too deep.
Villas Boas’ choice of replacing Sturridge was quite a strange one, as the England striker had been a livewire throughout the game, while Torres looked his usual West London self – decent movement but never in danger of scoring.
Despite Hernandez dragging his shot wide with ten minutes left, there was a sense of inevitability around Stamford Bridge and, when the Mexican striker was left unmarked in the box to head home Ryan Giggs’ cross, after Cech had brilliantly parried Rooney’s vicious strike, the goal didn’t surprise anybody.
United looked set to going for the jugular but, instead, it was Chelsea who went close to win the game: DeGea’s stunning saves on Juan Mata’s brilliant freekick and then on Cahill’s long range pile-driver were an astonishing finale to a pulsating encounter.
Despite falling two points behind City, United will take positives from this game, and not just for the way the got a point.
Rooney looked to be back to his best, in the thick of the action, while Carrick and Valencia carried on were they had left – assured performances and excellent work ethic.
Add to that the Fergie has a guy like Hernandez coming off the bench – 8th league goal of the season for the Mexican for whom United paid, it’s worth remember, seven times less than Chelsea paid for Torres.
54 years ago today, the Busby Babes played their last ever game drawing 3-3, so it was, perhaps, fitting that United produced such a spirited comeback to honour their memory.