Manchester United took the points, along with the satisfaction of their best start to a season in 25 years, but Chelsea left Old Trafford far from empty-handed. We have not yet seen enough of André Villas-Boas to come to firm conclusions, but on his first visit to Old Trafford he demonstrated a sense of adventure that contributed to a wackily entertaining game and held out the promise of interesting times ahead.
Boring Chelsea? Manchester United the super-efficient goal machine?
Neither of those current stereotypes survived this extraordinary match, a helter-skelter ride of fine goals and head-clutching errors – and that is to take into account only the individual contributions of Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres, both of whom touched the heights of the sublime and the depths of the gor-blimey.
On the stroke of half-time, Rooney was in position to slot home a loose ball from close range, giving United what seemed to be an utterly conclusive 3-0 lead. A quarter of an hour after the resumption, he spooned a penalty kick wide and high as his feet slid away from under him in the manner made famous by David Beckham in Istanbul and John Terry in Moscow.
By that time Chelsea had taken a goal back. Barely 20 seconds after the resumption, Nicolas Anelka – who had just replaced Frank Lampard – prodded a glorious ball into the inside-left channel for Torres, whose deft right-footed finish did full justice to the pass. Suddenly all was well with the troubled Spaniard. This, surely, would be the moment in which his talent unblocked itself. Now the goals would flow.
Forty minutes later, everything changed again in a moment of pure horror. Here was a miss that will be replayed for as long as Torres fails to reproduce the form that made him such a reliable goalscorer in six seasons with Atlético Madrid and the first three years of his Liverpool career.
With seemingly nerveless panache, he ran on to Ramires's excellent pass and rounded David de Gea. There were five minutes left on the clock, and a further five minutes to be added by the fourth official; a goal would have made the score 3-2 and, given the openness of the game and the way Chelsea had been playing, the defending champions would have been thrown back on desperate defence. Instead, from a distance of six yards, Torres put the ball wide of the vacant goal. The demons were back.
"The worst things happen to the best strikers in the world, and today it happened to both of them," Villas-Boas said in a level-headed assessment that betrayed none of the disappointment he must have felt after his side had taken the game to United from the start and then responded to going three goals down by redoubling their efforts.
"In the first half they could have scored two or three," Sir Alex Ferguson admitted, and the catalogue of chances spurned or denied began as early as the third minute, when De Gea kicked away Ramires's first‑time shot. Ten minutes later Anderson made Torres a gift of the ball 20 yards from the United goal, but after swerving inside Jonny Evans the striker was unable even to hit the target. Midway through the half Juan Mata provided a lovely pass for Torres, who might have shot but, perhaps remembering his success as a provider against Bayer Leverkusen five days earlier, opted to square the ball to Ramires, who should have given De Gea no opportunity to make a save from point-blank range.
As it was, Chelsea went in at the interval with the game seemingly out of their hands, which made their subsequent response all the more impressive. Villas‑Boas's decision to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4 by sending on Anelka in place of Lampard, who had produced a limp 45 minutes under the gaze of Fabio Capello, spoke of a brave refusal to cave in to the champions. Torres's goal immediately after the resumption brought the game straight back to life, and thereafter United could never be entirely comfortable.
The number of attempts on goal was exceeded only by a frequency of errors so astonishing that on the half-hour both Ferguson and Villas-Boas could be seen, while Branislav Ivanovic received treatment on the pitch, taking the opportunity to lecture key central midfield players on the need to tighten things up.
It made little difference. The match continued as it had begun, an enthralling and sometimes hilarious parade of scatter-brained mistakes and heart-stopping incidents. "Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go," Shakespeare's King Claudius said, and those inside Old Trafford on Sunday could not be sure whether they had bought tickets to the Theatre of Dreams or the Theatre of the Absurd. Neither could Torres, to whose torment there seems no end.