The Blues were denied a memorable victory deep inside stoppage time.
Didier Drogba had been set to celebrate his 350th Chelsea appearance with the not only a goal but three points as well, his fantastic header from a corner early in the second half having put his side ahead but our defence, which had dealt well with set-pieces on many occasions in the game, was finally breached when Robin van Persie netted a rebound following a fine Thibaut Courtois save.
In a highly competitive and fairly even first half, it was our keeper who made the best save, from Van Persie who was clean through, but once we had taken the lead all the ingredients were there for the win with good individual performances across the pitch.
However with seconds left of the clock, Branislav Ivanovic was sent off for a second bookable offence and the punishment continued, with the free-kick leading to the late leveller and a repeat of the scoreline from our previous visit to this city this season.
The home side may have been struggling by their normal standards but it always seemed likely they would raise their game for the back-to-back challenge of facing Chelsea and Man City, and so it proved.
A mistake from Marcos Rojo inside two minutes did lead to an Oscar shooting chance, with a deflection behind preventing an early test for De Gea but Man United responded strongly, with Fellaini’s back-heel towards goal blocked at source and Di Maria volleying over from six yards out.
Di Maria had started on the right in a switch from preceding games. On the other flank Branislav Ivanovic was called upon to slide in at the expense of a corner when Adnan Januzaj threatened to go clear onto a ball played behind our right-back.
With 12 minutes played, Man U right-back Rafael did not do so well when tested for pace by Eden Hazard. He became the game’s first player booked for a pull back on the Belgian.
The half continued on with neither side retaining possession for any notable length of time. Free-kicks were punctuating play as well, with Drogba booked for a foul on Mata deep in the Man United half.
On 21 minutes Courtois was called upon to make his first save, and what a good one it was too. Van Persie’s run behind the Blues defence was well-judged and picked out by Januzaj but our keeper was out at the Dutchman quickly and blocked the low shot. Courtois moments later caught a deflected shot from just under his crossbar. He then punched away a Di Maria free-kick.
Chelsea had been pushed back for some minutes before Man United errors twice in very quick succession led to the Blues bearing down on their sparse defence. Each time unfortunately the right choices were not taken, with Willian letting Smalling take the ball away from him, and then Drogba playing a pass wide but out of Hazard’s reach.
Set-pieces were proving the Blues’ most frequent means of delivering the ball into the danger zone, and Ivanovic was convinced he should have been awarded a penalty when his marker fell on him as one came his way. Replays showed Smalling had his arm round the Serbian’s neck. It was a good shout.
Hazard had also been angered when he didn’t get a free-kick decision, stopped by a third challenge on the edge of the area having just dribbled past two players. He was looking the man most likely to make something happen. Matic was booked moments later for a foul on Van Persie
Both sides had a chance to shoot at goal in the five minutes before the interval. Drogba, found by Oscar, struck a shot low and hard but De Gea did well to save. It was Chelsea’s best attempt so far. Then Januzaj in space on the right flashed his strike into the sidenetting. Just before the whistle Mata from a free-kick routine skied the ball high over the bar.
So it was all-square going into the changing rooms at the interval but it had been one of the more testing halves for Jose Mourinho’s side this season.
The Blues started brightly, this time attacking the end containing the vocal away following in their usual corner, but Oscar didn’t quite pick out Hazard in front of goal with the United defence retreating. Fabregas was then booked for fouling Mata as Man United broke.
Fellaini shot wide when the home side did get up the Stretford End before this simmering match burst into life. Initially it didn’t quite go the visitors’ way, De Gea excelling in keeping out Hazard’s shot from a chance very much of the Chelsea Player of the Year’s own making, with one helping pass from Drogba. However we scored from the corner that followed.
If Drogba’s penalty on Tuesday had a touch of Munich revisited, so did his near-post header high into the net that left De Gea and van Persie on the post flailing, albeit from the other side than in 2012. We had the lead with 52 minutes played and how Didier celebrated, first with his team-mates and then with a big slide in the corner in front of the delirious Chelsea fans.
Willian tested De Gea from distance with the Spaniard’s handling secure but some of the home team’s play was becoming more ragged and Chelsea were playing well.
Oscar joined the list of Chelsea players booked for fouls in the opposition half when he took down Smalling, and Ivanovic was carded for an offence near our area. We defended the resultant free-kick strongly, not for the only time in the half.
Mourinho made his first switch on 67 minutes with Mikel on for Oscar, with Man United bringing James Wilson on for Mata at the same time.
United’s confidence appeared to be draining as the minutes ticked by with them still in arrears and Ivanovic burst straight through their defence before flashing a cross-cum-shot across the face of goal. Willian with a curler was not too far away either, but the second goal would not come.
Fellaini was booked for pushing Hazard out of play before he reached the halfway line but Man United were steeling themselves for a concerted effort at an equaliser as the final 10 minutes approached.
Courtois saved with his feet from Van Persie at the near post and Wilson, playing up front with the home side now 4-4-2, looped a header onto the top of the net. When they won a corner, Courtois was the very definition of commanding as he claimed the ball in.
Schurrle was a late sub for Hazard who had just been booked and when Di Maria struck a shot straight at Courtois we looked to have done enough, with our defenders and Matic deserving plenty of credit as the end drew near.
However with 92 minutes played a foul was given when Phil Dowd decided Di Maria had been tripped by the pursuing Ivanovic out wide. To book and therefore send off our right-back looked harsh but now we had to defend one final free-kick with one player less.
From the delivery Fellaini must have thought he had headed an equaliser, only for lightning reactions from Courtois to keep it out. Van Persie was in the right place to make the most of the loose ball.
Chelsea’s lead at the top is now four points.