Premier League - United comeback stuns Chelsea
But United raised their game and, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney – who netted two penalties – they drew level thanks to a late Javier Hernandez header.
Chelsea will be wondering how they failed to win the game given their position before United’s first penalty went in on 58 minutes.
Questions will again be asked of Andre Villas-Boas’s tactical acuity: Daniel Sturridge had been a livewire all match, forcing Evans’s own-goal and leading the line with confidence, while Torres – for all his hard work – looked lost once more, picking up a fourth booking since last February that means he has seen yellow more often than the back of the net for the Blues, although he did get a fine assist.
But when United pulled it back to 3-2 following a contentious penalty given when Danny Welbeck bought contact from Branislav Ivanovic, the Portuguese coach removed Sturridge and not Torres for Oriol Romeu.
Romeu has good positional sense, but he had a limited impact - possibly startled by the intensity of the occasion - while it is common knowledge that retreating into a defensive shell plays to Manchester United's strengths of relentless attack from all angles.
A tense first half saw United make most of the running, while Chelsea got the lucky breaks – including one that Reds fans will insist cancels out their questionable penalty.
Referee Howard Webb failed to penalise a clear foul from Cahill, which started outside the area but left Welbeck in a heap when he was through on goal. Had it been given, Chelsea would most likely have gone down to 10 men at an early stage.
The Blues’ second slice of fortune resulted in them taking the lead: Sturridge did well to beat a sluggish Patrice Evra to the by-line, but his low cross flew past De Gea and in off the chest of a helpless Evans.
Chelsea went close to an immediate second when Sturridge forced a smart stop from De Gea, so United cranked up the pressure, creating chances through Young, Welbeck and Rooney – Petr Cech making fine saves to deny all three.
The second half seemed to be set for a United comeback but, practically from the restart, Chelsea doubled their lead with a wonderful goal.
Torres was in acres of space down the right with Evra again missing. The goal-shy striker floated over a delightful cross that landed to his diminutive Spain team-mate Mata: in a flash, and with marvellous technique, the former Valencia playmaker hammered an incredible volley that flew past De Gea into the roof of the net.
It was some goal and within three minutes it was 3-0, although a combination of poor defending and yet more luck saw Luiz meet Mata’s free-kick with a header, allowed to do so by poor marking and helped past De Gea by the shoulder of Rio Ferdinand.
Sir Alex Ferguson responded by introducing Hernandez, but the Mexican super-sub was not involved as Evra went some way to compensating for his defensive frailties by bounding into the box to draw a clumsy challenge from Sturridge.
It was a penalty and Rooney responded with a clean finish into the roof of the net, bringing it back to 3-1.
While that decision was clear, United’s second spot-kick was dubious to say the least: in an almost-identical incident to that which saw Manchester City’s Adam Johnson win a penalty off Fulham’s Chris Baird on Saturday, Welbeck hung a leg out to draw contact off Serb defender Ivanovic.
It was gamesmanship by Welbeck and Webb – perhaps with his earlier mistake in mind – pointed to the spot, Ivanovic’s righteous disbelief mimicking that of Baird’s at Eastlands. Rooney was not put off though, coolly slotting the penalty one way and sending Cech the other, and it was game on.
The England striker was at the heart of everything, taking the game to Chelsea and ably supported by marauding wide-man Antonio Valencia, who had been put to right-back following Paul Scholes’s entrance but was playing more like Cafu than Gary Neville.
As United piled forward, Chelsea were still creating chances – De Gea making a decent stop from Michael Essien’s long-range hammer, and Torres delaying his shot enough for Valencia to block after the misfiring Spaniard played himself past Evans with a clever header.
But the script insisted United should complete the miraculous comeback, and they did so in some style as – after another bounding run and cross from Valencia – Rooney drew a fine stop from Cech: Ryan Giggs picked it up wide left and, as he has done for what seems like an eternity, the old man of the Premier League curled a wonderful cross that Hernandez was destined to meet with a headed goal.
There was still time for some late drama as De Gea went some way to compensating for errors in previous matches with a miracle stop from Mata’s curling free-kick, showing incredibly agility and speed to pluck the ball from the top right.
The former Atletico Madrid man was called into action again when, in the fourth minute of injury time, a trademark Cahill piledriver was tipped over for a corner.
United were not to be undone, holding out for the draw, and – while they remain behind City – they are still very much in the hunt for the title.
Chelsea, meanwhile, continue to look over their shoulders at Newcastle and Arsenal as the threat of finishing outside the top four looms.