The champions made it five wins out of five, beating Chelsea in an exhilarating contest at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Chelsea’s visit to Manchester was the sternest test that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faced so far this season, but they prevailed in an end-to-end match that provided excitement, drama, controversy and surprises.
Having taken a 3-0 lead at halftime, with goals from Chris Smalling, Nani and Wayne Rooney, the United fans greeted news of Manchester City’s draw at Fulham with a huge roar of approval, as it left the Reds with breathing space at the top of the Premier League.
City’s failure to capitalise on a two-goal advantage meant a win for the Red Devils would leave them two points clear at the top of the table. Despite a goal from Fernando Torres just 30 seconds into the second half, United held on for their fifth consecutive win.
The match itself was a perfect advertisement for the Premier League, with Ferguson comparing it to a “basketball match,” as both teams contributed to a stunning game of football by throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to take three points.
It was first blood for United, who struck just seven minutes in, when Chris Smalling headed home a perfect delivery from an Ashley Young free kick.
Replays suggested the defender was marginally offside, but Chelsea will be more concerned by the lack of marking from the set piece, where Smalling ghosted in at the back post completely unmarked, guiding his header into the top corner of Petr Cech’s net.
It was a frantic opening, in which Chelsea had already squandered a good chance to take the lead, when David De Gea, recalled to the starting lineup as predicted, saved Ramires’ shot with his legs.
Poor finishing became worryingly familiar for the visitors, as Torres’ fired a scuffed shot wide, and Ramires was again thwarted by De Gea, this time wasting an even easier opportunity.
Juan Mata, whose talented showing suggests he will become a key player at Stamford Bridge for years to come, squared the ball for the Brazilian to tap into the gaping net, but his shot was fired at De Gea, who scrambled back across the line to make an outstanding save.
Sir Alex Ferguson was rightly concerned by United’s generosity in midfield, as they often gifted possession to their opponents in the middle of the park.
Chelsea, however, could not take advantage, and despite having 10 attempts on goal in the first half hour, United’s only effort remained the difference between the teams.
Andre Villas-Boas saw his team waste several good chances to equalise, and their failure to convert their chances left their boss heading to his first defeat as Chelsea manager when United doubled their advantage shortly after the half-hour mark.
Nani picked up the ball in the Chelsea half, before heading toward the goal and unleashing an unstoppable drive into Cech’s top right-hand corner from outside the box. The keeper could only watch as the Portuguese winger capped an impressive display—his 100th in the Premier League—with a goal and acrobatic celebration to match.
The worst was to come before the break, too, when Wayne Rooney gave United a three-goal cushion at the interval.
Phil Jones, already a commanding presence at the heart of the defence, made a run into the Chelsea box, and after a full-blooded tackle from John Terry, the Chelsea captain cleared the ball into Nani, before the rebound fell fortuitously to Rooney in front of an empty net.
The England striker bagged his ninth goal of the season and became the first United player to score in the opening five games of a season since Jack Rowley in 1946.
A third goal looked to have ended the contest, but Andre Villas-Boas’ decision to replace Frank Lampard with Nicolas Anelka at halftime immediately paid dividends.
The Frenchman played a delightful reverse ball through to Torres, who took his chance brilliantly, chipping a fine finish past his compatriot De Gea just 30 seconds after the restart.
The goal was just his second in a Chelsea shirt and looked reminiscent of the Torres of old on a day when his movement and energy was excellent, but his finishing let him down.
Chelsea, adopting an attacking approach with Torres, Mata, Anelka and Daniel Sturridge all on the field, looked increasingly dangerous, but it was United who had an opportunity to put the game out of reach 10 minutes later, when they were awarded a penalty.
Nani fired a long-range effort against the bar and got the wrong side of Bosingwa as he looked to collect the rebound. The Chelsea full-back may have gotten some of the ball, but it appeared to be after contact with Nani, and the home crowd were optimistic a red card would follow.
Dowd, however, spared the defender, who, if guilty of a foul, had surely denied a goalscoring opportunity.
Instead, it was John Terry who found himself in the referee’s notebook after he was booked for dissent.
Terry’s actions delayed Rooney’s quest for a second goal, having already placed the ball on the spot, but after an exchange of smiles with the England captain, his resulting penalty was horribly familiar for the Chelsea star.
Rooney slipped on his approach, the ball sailing harmlessly wide, bringing back memories of Terry’s missed penalty in the Champions League Final against United in Moscow.
Chelsea were reprieved, and Torres perhaps should have added a second when he fired a rebound well over the bar, having already forced another save from De Gea.
Ferguson will be concerned that Smalling had to be withdrawn from the game with a groin injury that could rule him out for several games, although his replacement, winger Antonio Valencia, looked a more-than-capable replacement at the position, and Chelsea struggle to take advantage of the Ecuadorian, despite him playing out of position.
Rooney missed another chance with just over 10 minutes on the clock when he flicked a cross off the base of the post with Cech beaten. Javier Hernandez, who was quiet for the hosts, fired the follow-up into the side netting, under pressure from Ashley Cole.
The Mexican was injured in the tackle, and was quickly replaced by Dimitar Berbatov, but on second viewing it became clear Hernandez was lucky to escape serious injury, with Cole’s challenge late and reckless.
Ferguson later branded the tackle “shocking,” and Cole was very fortunate to escape with just a yellow card—although the hosts were left bemused when a second penalty was not awarded despite the booking.
However, Rooney and Hernandez’s misses were quickly forgotten courtesy of an even more glaring miss from Torres.
With just more than five minutes remaining, the Spaniard had a great opportunity to get Chelsea back into the game, when he latched onto a through-ball and rounded De Gea.
With the open goal at his mercy and time to compose himself, Torres hopelessly fired the ball wide of the gaping net before collapsing to the turf despondently, directly in front of the delighted Stretford End.
The former Liverpool striker was taunted mercilessly by the Old Trafford crowd, and he cut a forlorn figure at the end of the game.
Chelsea will be concerned by the impact the miss may have on Torres’ already fragile confidence—a problem they hope may have been solved by his well-taken goal and otherwise solid performance.
However, while the home crowd remained unwilling to let Torres move on, United had another chance of their own, as Ashley Cole cleared a Berbatov shot off the line, with the Bulgarian struggling to reach Rooney’s over-hit pass.
In the end, United’s misses were forgotten, and only Torres’ lingered on in the memory as Phil Dowd called time on a highly eventful affair.
Chelsea impressed for the most part, and perhaps deserved more from the game, but they were punished by defensive lapses and some dreadful finishing. In the end, it was a couple of moments of magic from United that proved to be the difference.
United’s 100-percent start to the season remained in tact, with the champions passing their greatest test thus far, but they were not at their best, giving the ball away too often in midfield and missing some good chances of their own.
Their clinical first half performance was enough to guide them past their opponents, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men now sit two points clear at the top of the table, with five consecutive wins and 21 goals already to their name.
For a team who historically get better after Christmas, the signs are worryingly ominous for their rivals.
Manchester United: De Gea (7), Smalling (8), Jones (9), Evans (7), Evra (7), Nani (9), Fletcher (7), Anderson (6), Young (7), Hernandez (5), Rooney (7); Subs: Valencia (7), Carrick (7), Berbatov (6).
Chelsea: Cech (6), Bosingwa (7), Ivanovic (7), Terry (6), Cole (6), Ramires (6), Lampard (5), Meireles (6), Sturridge (5), Mata (7), Torres (6). Subs: Anelka (6), Lukaku (5), Mikel (6).
Referee: Phil Dowd (5)
Attendance: 75, 455