This was never meant to be a clash of champions. One side was on the ascendancy, marching seemingly unstoppable towards their 19th title. The other was ostensibly a bloated has-been desperately clinging on to the vestiges of seasons gone by.

And yet, in what proved to be the most exciting encounter between these two sides in years, it was the relative underdog that prevailed. It was not without a touch of controversy, though. But then expecting a blemish-free game, when Chelsea and Manchester United lock horns is wishful thinking.

Chelsea were undone by a spectacular Manchester United side in the first half, who then shockingly failed to turn up in the second. Having taken their foot off the accelerator, the Red Devils were overrun by a Chelsea side suddenly high on confidence.

A Lesson In Tactics – Formation 101

Manchester United did not disappoint with their decision to come out all guns blazing – their supporters would not have demanded any less. This was never going to be an encounter where they’d hunker down and look to sneak a point or a goal against the run of play. Sir Alex Ferguson arrayed his men in the reliable 4-4-2 with Wayne Rooney and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez up front. The Red Devils were hell bent on taking the game to the wary Blues.

Both Sir Alex and Carlo fielded a 4-4-2 formation and lined up their teams for a win, nothing but a win.

Carlo Ancelotti finally answered the prayers of the Stamford faithful and left his intransigent self at home. Choosing to feature a 4-4-2 against United, was a deliberate statement of intent. The Italian was going to call the Scotsman’s bluff. It helped, of course, that the same formation had reaped dividends against Danish side FC Copenhagen in the Champions League.

A Few Good Men

If formations won you the game by virtue of merely lining up in them, you could afford to staff your team with the best talent from your local kindergarten and still be in with a fighting chance. The first half was proof that United’s midfield were better qualified; the second half was evidence Chelsea’s midfield learn their lessons quickly.

United’s flanks were set alight primarily by Nani, while Chelsea’s width-providing options were either in pathetic form (Malouda) or incessantly drifted inwards (Ramires). The latter failed to keep Patrice Evra in check, and left way too much for Ivanovic at Right-Back to handle, considering the Serbian’s primary responsibility lay in silencing Nani. Barring the first 10 minutes, where Chelsea flattered to deceive, the first half proved to be a masterclass from Fergie’s midfield boys, who trounced their Blue counterparts in every position. Scholes and Carrick outperformed, outgunned and out-ran Lampard and Essien.

The Blues came back strongly in the second half, by simply tweaking their approach. Ramires stuck to the flanks, and the rest of the squad shadowed the Devils for their every move and Essien put in one heck of a second-half performance. Manchester United, who suddenly found themselves constricted, gave up the second half without even a semblance of a fight.

Getting It Right

Ancelotti’s never been the pastmaster of high-impact substitutions, but today he gets full points for getting it spot on. The poor-performing Malouda was benched, in the second half, with the newly-fit and raring to go Yuri Zhirkov. The ever-diminishing presence of Anelka was traded in for the bossy, domineering presence of Ivorian hitman Didier Drogba. Jose Bosingwa coming in to shield David Luiz from the danger of another yellow, was a smart but entirely predictable move.

In contrast, Sir Alex Ferguson’s most prominent rolls of the die brought on Ryan Giggs and the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov.  Neither substitution proved especially helpful to the Red Devils‘ cause.

The Defining Moments

* Red Devils will feel rightly aggrieved at David Luiz getting away with what should have been a second yellow card for a deliberate knock on Wayne Rooney, away from the watchful eyes of the referee. Rooney himself found the benefit of Martin Atkinson’s largesse with the referee turning his eyes away from some first half shenanigans by the striker, while Vidic rode his luck until it finally ran out on him.

* Edwin van der Sar deserves credit for an astonishing series of saves, three within the blink of an eye, and it certainly looked then like Chelsea were having one of those days at the office. How Lampard, and then Ivanovic, were both kept out by the flying Dutchman would’ve been the stuff of legend, had United walked away with all three points.

* Wayne Rooney would be in with a shout for best goal of the season, if he hadn’t already scored the goal of the decade a few weeks earlier.

* Yuri Zhirkov might well have been Chelsea’ rabbit foot, being brought down in the penalty box under a half-challenge from the otherwise dependable Smalling. It was a harsh, albeit justified, move by the referee and Smalling offered very little by way of protest – perhaps dejected at having let his team down in the softest of ways.

* Vidic would however have no such complaints. Martin “Three-Strikes-And-You’re-Out” Atkinson duly did the honours when the Serbian’s antics crossed the point of no-return in the dying stages of the game.

* Frank Lampard may have saved more than his club’s season with a superbly taken penalty. He might just have saved Carlo Ancelotti’s job. And Arsene Wenger’s face and thrown Roberto Mancini a lifeline as well. Seldom has a single goal meant so much to so many sides.

The Birth Of A Star

The game will be debated for years to come, and one man has firmly installed himself in the centre of that debate. To Chelsea’s detractors, the fact the Brazilian with the bouffant hairstyle stayed on the field, is proof of the referee’s leniency towards the defending champions. To Chelsea supporters, however, Luiz symbolizes the resurrection of the club’s fortunes over the winter break.

David Luiz – scored an invaluable goal, should have been sent off, yet delivered a memorable performance.

The young defender had tucked Wayne Rooney in his back pocket for most of the game, barring the rocket that sent United 1-0 up. Easily, the game’s best performer, Luiz went from strength to strength and the Blues seemed to draw their strength from him. For once, perhaps, John Terry was not doing the leading. Luiz may come to stand for many things in the future – his club’s new-found reliance on youth, the aggressive take-no-prisoners style, the elite club of ball-playing defenders who can score.

But today, he epitomized what ultimately set Chelsea apart from their stellar rivals. An insatiable hunger, and pangs of desperation.