Premier League - United prevail in classic encounter
Manchester United assumed control of the Premier League when maintaining their 100 per cent record with a 3-1 win over Chelsea in a game for which the phrase 'action-packed' would do a huge disservice.
Throughout a thrilling, and often quite crazy 90 minutes at Old Trafford, both Chelsea and United were utterly committed to attack and the millions watching around the globe were rewarded with a quite brilliant denouement to a beguiling weekend in the Premier League.
Chris Smalling and Nani put United 2-0 in front after 37 minutes, though both had been offside, and Wayne Rooney continued his prolific form with a third just before half-time as United raced into a comprehensive lead that was ill-deserved given the weight of chances enjoyed by Andre Villas-Boas's side.
Fernando Torres replied within 30 seconds of the restart for only his second goal in 24 games for Chelsea but his recent issues resurfaced as he was then guilty of producing arguably one of the worst misses in the long history of the Premier League after rounding David De Gea.
Rooney could have had his third hat-trick in three games as he missed a penalty and then struck the post, with Ashley Cole collecting a yellow card but not conceding a penalty when thumping into Javier Hernandez as he drilled the rebound into the side netting. Referee Phil Dowd apparently felt the ball was out of play before the offence occurred.
As Chelsea created chance after chance to no avail, United still had time to pass up another golden opportunity as, with Petr Cech taken out by Rooney's square pass, substitute Dimitar Berbatov somehow failed to make it four when allowing Cole to clear off the line.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men did not enjoy the complete dominance that has accompanied their previous victories in the league this season but still proved ruthless in a first half in which they scored three times without reply.
It was Smalling who put them in front after only eight minutes. Jose Bosingwa conceded a free-kick on the United right and Ashley Young's delivery was met at the back post by Smalling, who had eluded his marker to plant a firm header past Cech. Replays confirmed the suspicion that he was in an offside position when the ball was delivered though.
Incredibly, in a half during which United ran rampant, it was Chelsea who created the better chances. Ramires had called De Gea into a smart stop with his right boot after only four minutes and the Brazilian then passed up an almost certain goal when placing the ball into the chest of the Spanish keeper after Torres had unselfishly squared to present him with what was to all intents and purposes an open goal.
The Spaniard approached the game with a record of one goal in 23 for Chelsea and in that context his decision to square for Ramires was a surprising one. When presented with his own chance after an awful pass from Anderson gifted him possession, the striker scuffed a shot just wide of the far post.
Raul Meireles also played in Frank Lampard with a delightful pass, only for the midfielder to smash a shot wide, and Branislav Ivanovic also forced De Gea into a save with a header for a corner. But while Chelsea looked a threat in the final third, they remained vulnerable at the back.
Nani was so often the catalyst and created excellent chances for both Javier Hernandez and Rooney before scoring United's second himself with a strike of real beauty. He appeared offside when collecting a brilliant cross-field pass from Jonny Evans, but meandered infield and unleashed a brutal shot into the top corner from 20 yards.
On the stroke of half-time Chelsea somehow found themselves 3-0 down when Rooney claimed his ninth Premier League goal in five games. Phil Jones played an important role as he exchanged passes with the striker before then sticking in his leg as the ball bounced around the Chelsea box. After deflecting off Nani and rolling into the path of Rooney, it was dispatched in inevitable fashion by a striker at the very top of his game.
Villas-Boas responded by replacing Lampard with Nicolas Anelka at the break and the Frenchman made an immediate impact. Just 30 after the restart he released Torres with a lovely reverse pass and the Spaniard claimed only his second goal for Chelsea with a delightful lofted finish over De Gea in a moment that recalled some of his better moments for Liverpool, rather than the mediocrity that has enveloped him since January.
But United did not look ready to capitulate and on 55 minutes Nani again wreaked havoc. The Portugal winger slammed a shot off the underside of the bar and when attempting to score from the rebound was brought down by a clumsy challenge from Bosingwa.
United had the penalty, and Rooney had the chance to move onto 10 Premier League games well before the end of September. However, with Terry looking on, he emulated the Chelsea captain's spot-kick in Moscow in the Champions League final of 2008 when slipping and sending the ball wide.
The Blues had improved after Villas-Boas removed Lampard and instructed Mata to play in behind Torres, with another substitute in Romelu Lukaku seeing an effort blocked by Patrice Evra following a short corner after 70 minutes.
Soon after, Torres forced De Gea into a sprawling save with a low effort before latching onto the rebound and firing a volley high into the stands. Chelsea and United's commitment to attack made for a fantastic encounter and on 77 minutes the home side went close once more.
Rooney saw a scuffed effort from an Evra cross bounce of the base of the post and when Hernandez rifled the rebound into the side netting he was caught by a shocking challenge from Cole. The left-back was booked, and was perhaps lucky to escape a red card, but no penalty was given as the ball was already out of play when the offence occurred.
Still the drama continued. On 84 minutes, Torres ensured that despite scoring his second goal for the club he will remember this match for the wrong reasons when producing one of the most glaring misses surely seen in the top flight. After a superb off-the-ball run, the striker rounded De Gea and had an empty net to tap into, but on his left foot somehow skewed the ball wide. It was painful to watch, especially for a player who has struggled so badly to live up to expectations following his £50 million move.
In injury time United could have added a fourth when Rooney raced clear and cut out Cech with a square pass to Dimitar Berbatov, but the sliding substitute produced a weak effort that allowed Cole to scramble across and clear off the line as the game concluded in frantic fashion. It was that type of match.