Wayne Rooney claimed Manchester United's stunning late comeback at Chelsea could have yielded the unlikely point that wins them the Premier League title.
United, already behind to Jonny Evans's own-goal, shipped twice in the opening five minutes of the second half only to recover to 3-3 courtesy of two Rooney penalties – the second controversially awarded against Branislav Ivanovic – and a Javier Hernández header. The draw leaves them two points behind Manchester City at the top, though the boos that rang out on the final whistle reflected Chelsea frustration at the champions' staggering fightback.
"We fought well and that point could win us the league," Rooney said. "A lot of teams would find it easy to put their heads down and accept defeat, but we carried on, worked hard and, thankfully, got something out of the game. We knew if we got one goal back there was enough time to gain something out of the game, so we dug in.
"You can also see it as two points lost – we understand that – but after being 3-0 down all the City players sitting there at home won't have enjoyed watching us [recover], the way we fought back and the spirit of the team. They know it will be a long fight to the end of the season, and we'll be there right to the end."
There was satisfaction from Sir Alex Ferguson at the comeback, for all that the United manager could not disguise irritation that his charges could not prevail against a Chelsea team severely weakened by injury, suspension and international commitments.
"It's not easy to come back like that from three goals down," he said. "We are a far better team than what you saw today but it's still a massive effort from our players. You have to admire the courage and the character of our team because those are the qualities that will definitely give us a fantastic chance in this league. At 3-0 down you say to yourself: 'Damage limitation, let's go home and start again.' But no. They never gave in, kept going and deserved everything they got."
Chelsea had never previously failed to win after enjoying a three-goal advantage in the Premier League and André Villas-Boas pointed accusingly at Howard Webb for the award of Rooney's second penalty as key to surrendering the victory. Ivanovic did not appear to make contact with Danny Welbeck with his initial challenge, only for the England forward to hook his leg around the Serb and tumble to the turf.
The Chelsea manager remains aggrieved at two goals awarded by Phil Dowd to United in their 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford in September. "In both games against United we've had top, top refs, so you expect it to be perfect in terms of refereeing," he said. "But in these two [matches] they have had a direct influence on the result. The second today was very dubious. Too soft … Welbeck's legs collide with Ivanovic.
"I'm not sure if Howard was compensating for anything from the first half but it was the wrong decision. For them to get from 3-1 to 3-2 was immense.
"There's big disappointment with the way it all happened. In top games you expect top refs and, at the moment, it hasn't been happening for us. It didn't happen at Old Trafford with two offside goals and there was a dubious decision today that, in the end, shifted the running of the game."
Villas-Boas suggested the incident for which Webb might have been "compensating" was a foul by the home debutant, Gary Cahill, on Welbeck when he appeared to be wriggling through on goal. Ferguson believed the linesman Darren Cann should have waved for a foul, which might have seen the centre-back dismissed, and was just as aggrieved at the non-award of a spot‑kick for José Bosingwa's perceived foul on Ashley Young.
"They should've had a man sent off," Ferguson said. "Danny Welbeck's clear through, brought down, but nothing, no decision. That linesman, by the way, has given two penalty kicks against us at Old Trafford – from 40 yards away last year against Liverpool and this year against Arsenal – and he can't see that? I don't blame Howard Webb. He needed help in that situation and didn't get it. That assistant referee, who's all too happy to flag at Old Trafford for penalty kicks, didn't give them."