Chelsea took maximum advantage of Wayne Rooney's absence to move into pole position in the Premier League title race with a 2-1 win over Manchester United here on Saturday.
A late strike from substitute Federico Macheda ensured United kept the contest alive to the death and, on another day, United might also have enjoyed a better return from three debatable penalty appeals. But the champions could scarcely complain about the outcome after failing to create a single clear scoring opportunity in open play before Macheda bundled a cross from fellow substitute Nani over the line with nine minutes left.
After the match, Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti said the team had started the match better because they were not as fatigued. "We kept a high intensity in the first half. We had good control of the game. We trained very well during the week because we didn't have a Champions League match. You lose a lot of energy," he said. "We played very well in the first half. It's a very important victory for us and a very important performance. To win here is not easy, we did a good job."
United coach Sir Alex Ferguson admitted his team were "leggy" and that the loss was a huge blow. "Five games left, they're two points ahead and four goals better than us - they're in the driving seat," he continued. "Chelsea are favourites now, there's no question. I'm certain we'll respond but we could win the next five games and not win it."
Rooney's absence did not entail a change of shape for United, with Dimitar Berbatov - who once again failed to live up to his status as the most expensive signing in the club's history - slotting in at the sharp end of an attacking trident made up of Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia.
Ancelotti's pre-match suggestion that Drogba was too important to be left out proved to be a smokescreen as the Italian opted for the same line-up that started last weekend's 7-1 demolition of Aston Villa. That meant Nicolas Anelka leading the line and Cole and Florent Malouda occupying the flanks and it was the two wide men who combined to give Chelsea the lead after 20 minutes of cagey opening exchanges.
Malouda and Cole combine
From wide on the left, Malouda wriggled past Valencia, turned inside Gary Neville and powered into the area, muscling Darren Fletcher aside on his way to the byline. The Frenchman's low cross found Cole at the near post and, despite the attentions of Patrice Evra, the England international was able to produce a deft little flick through his own legs to find the net. That piece of improvisation made amends for Cole having wasted the best chance of the match until then, when he shanked his shot from an inviting Anelka pass.
For United, Berbatov had headed a Valencia cutback high over the bar and Evra had had an effort from the corner of the penalty area comfortably saved by Petr Cech. The home side did have two first-half penalty appeals, Park Ji-Sung tumbling, somewhwat theatrically, under a challenge from Yuri Zhirkov and Berbatov behing up-ended by Frank Lampard, who looked to have played the ball fractionally before he swept the Bulgarian's standing leg away. In between those two, Chelsea had what looked like a stronger penalty claim of their own turned down after Neville barged Anelka off the ball inside the area, while the threat posed by Malouda was underlined by the bookings both Neville and Scholes received for fouls on the Frenchman.
United appeared oddly listless but Fletcher injected a note of urgency as the hour approached, driving through the middle to create a shooting opportunity for Park. The South Korean sliced his effort wide but United took the half-chance as their cue to move up a gear. Berbatov was narrowly off target with headers from Giggs and Neville deliveries from the right while Evra forced Cech to flap at a equally menacing cross from the opposite flank.
United had another penalty appeal waved away when Antonio Valencia headed a Giggs free-kick against the upper arm of Malouda. That looked like it might be a last chance for the champions after Drogba, who looked to have drifted fractionally offside, collected fellow substitute Salomon Kalou's pass and hammered an unstoppable finish past van der Sar at his near post.
Nani and Macheda, combined to give the home side a lifeline but United never seriously threatened to produce the equaliser that would have kept them at the top of the table with five matches to play.