Manchester, Mark Radcliffe once said, is "a city that thinks a table is for dancing on" and, in football terms, it is difficult to see anyone else gatecrashing the party. Sir Alex Ferguson's message before this match was that Chelsea could not be discounted but there was little evidence to suggest André Villas‑Boas's team can sustain a genuine title challenge to the Manchester clubs. Chelsea looked bright in flashes. They moved the ball well and got behind United's defence but they also flirted with the idea of going down to the heaviest defeat of the Roman Abramovich era. The season is still in its infancy and nobody from Old Trafford would be presumptuous enough to write them off, but, for the team that beat Arsenal 8-2 in their last home match, this could conceivably have been another score more reminiscent of a 1950s match.
At Old Trafford they still find it perplexing that Nani did not even make it on to the short list for last season's player-of-the-year awards – and the sense of grievance is fully justified. Nani has not always been the crowd's favourite, but since he developed into a serious footballer it is difficult to think of too many wide players around the football world who possess a greater penetrative edge. Nani complained recently that whenever he is interviewed he is always asked about whether he feels he is still living in the shadow of Ronaldo. The truth is he has become a formidable player in his own right. Here's a statistic: Nani versus Ronaldo, goals and assists over their first 100 league matches for United – 52 versus 31.
The thing about Fernando Torres is that everyone seems to think it is only a matter of time before the old player comes back, the devastating striker who gave the impression he could score from any angle and once came to Old Trafford and subjected Nemanja Vidic to one of the worst ordeals he has suffered in United's colours. Torres, to give him his due, reminded us that he can distinguish between the frame of a goal and the door of a barn and when he clipped his shot over David de Gea early in the second half it was in a manner totally out of keeping with someone who had scored just once in his previous 23 matches for Chelsea. But then we come to the open‑goal miss later in the second half. Or the pig's ear he made of that chance in the first half when Anderson gave him the ball just outside the penalty area. His performance was a wild graph of what is good and bad and, sadly for him, that horrible late howler in front of the Stretford End will probably be remembered more than the expertly taken goal.
At half-time it was clear that Chelsea needed to change something and the decision by Villas-Boas was bold. Frank Lampard had struggled through the opening 45 minutes, like a boxer after one too many fights. He is 33 now, the years are catching up and there are increasing signs of a player on the wane. Perhaps he needs to reinvent himself. This is still a footballer with many qualities but, in terms of energy and drive, Ramires had a more telling impact for Chelsea in midfield. And the worst part for Lampard? This is beginning to feel like the norm rather than the exception. Maybe now is the time he should consider taking a more deep-lying role, just as Roy Keane and Paul Scholes once changed their roles for United. The cold, harsh reality is, that nobody could particularly argue with the decision of Lampard's manager.
There were a couple of loose moments. The Manchester United goalkeeper flapped at a cross and, at one point, Chelsea's supporters could be heard comparing him unfavourably with Heurelho Gomes, now third-choice goalkeeper at Spurs. But De Gea's self‑belief is growing and, likewise, the crowd are getting more confidence in him. He also enjoyed a bit of luck because while the point‑blank save from Ramires earned him a congratulatory hug from Anderson, the Chelsea man will wince when he sees the replays of how he and his team-mate Daniel Sturridge got in each other's way. De Gea has endured an erratic start but, slowly but surely, he is coming through the scrutiny.