Manchester survived a fine Chelsea fight back to beat Chelsea 3-2 at Stamford Bridge after the home side had controversially been reduced to nine men midway through the second half.
There could be little complaint about the dismissal of Branislav Ivanovic, but the subsequent second yellow card given to Fernando Torres for an alleged dive appeared extremely harsh. The decisions changed the complex of the game as Javier Hernandez soon grabbed a winner in a game that Chelsea had been in the ascendency after falling two goals behind early on from a David Luiz own goal and a strike from Robin van Persie. Chelsea’s fightback to 2-2 with goals from Juan Mata and Ramires would eventually count for nothing, though, with the home players and fans in little doubt as to who was responsible.
The result closes up the gap at the summit of the Premier League table with Chelsea now holding just a solitary point lead over Manchester rivals United and City.
In contrast to their slow starts for much of this season, it was United who had begun the contest firmly on the front foot.
Van Persie had already fired a shot straight at Cech before his first-time effort from Wayne Rooney’s pull back after just four minutes struck the post before bouncing straight back onto David Luiz and bouncing into the net. For all that United’s defensive problems had made the headlines, it was Chelsea’s defense that had been badly caught out as the returning Ashley Young came inside to combine with Rooney.
And it was another poor defensive effort that allowed United’s attack to flourish once more in the 12th minute. Ashley Cole got doubled up on down his side allowing Antonio Valencia to be found with far too much space near the byline and Luiz to be dragged wide before the Ecuadorian produced a customary dangerous ball in that found Van Persie unmarked to convert first time past Cech.
Chelsea gradually settled into the game, as they tried to get their trio if attacking midfielders onto the ball more and as the half entered its final 10 minutes the home side came close to reducing their arrears.
United almost gifted Chelsea a goal back as Jonny Evans unwittingly diverted John Mikel Obi’s cross onto his own post and behind. In truth, United were thankful for some fine stops from David de Gea for keeping Chelsea at bay.
Having already blocked a Luiz free-kick in unconventional fashion with his legs, De Gea used the same technique to block a firm header from Gary Cahill.
In contrast to their opening onslaught, United were now firmly on the defensive as Rooney dropped increasingly deep into midfield.
It was Rooney’s frustration at having just lost the ball to Eden Hazard that saw the England international lunge in and concede a free-kick on the edge of his own box. The foul proved costly as Mata brought Chelsea firmly back into the contest with a superb curling free-kick that nestled perfectly inside the far side netting.
Mata nearly pulled his side level straight after, but, played through by Torres, the in-form midfielder prodded toward goal but was thwarted by the legs of De Gea.
While United would survive until half-time, their lead would only last eight minutes into the second period.
Feeding off of Mata’s cross to the far post, Oscar did well to chip the ball back into the danger zone and find Ramires on the six yard box who headed low beyond De Gea.
At this stage, Chelsea very much appeared the likely winner in the top of the table contest. But that all changed in the space of five minutes.
First, Van Persie turned Cahill and split the Chelsea defense with a ball through to Young and, trying to get back, Ivanovic apparently unintentionally clipped the heels of the United winger to send him tumbling to the ground and give the referee little choice but to produce a red card for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity.
But while that decision had been clear cut, the same could not be said of the one referee Mark Clattenburg made to give Fernando Torres his second yellow card just five minutes later. Evans dove in on the Spanish striker and Torres went to ground but, while the contact may at most have been minimal it was a bold move to say that it had been a dive.
With such a pivotal numerical advantage, it was always going to be a mountain to climb for Chelsea to even hang on for the remaining 20 minutes. Despite reinforcing their defense it would prove too high a hurdle for Chelsea to climb.
Cech had just gotten enough onto a Van Persie shot to prevent the ball from going in, but he’s subsequent clearance off the line fell to Rafael who drilled it across goal where substitute Javier Hernandez was on hand to tap home from just a few yards out. There was further frustration for the home side, though, as replays confirmed that Hernandez had been in an offside position when the cross came in.
That was to prove the last meaningful action of match that will doubtless be remembered for the officiating but was also a game of fitting quality contested between of the country’s top sides.