For 30 minutes at Stamford Bridge last night, Chelsea watched as Manchester United played the game around them. For 30 minutes, it was possible to become excited once again about the renaissance under Louis Van Gaal. Here was a team laying down a marker for a future title challenge or even an unlikely chase in the remaining matches this season.
Jose Mourinho's side couldn't compete as they watched the slicker, more adventurous United team live up to their fine traditions. But Chelsea have their own traditions too and under Mourinho only one thing matters: victory.
After half an hour, Chelsea snapped. They were like Sean Connery in The Untouchables when he is in pursuit of a mobster on the Canadian border. "Enough of this running shit," Connery says as he fires his gun in the air.
Chelsea had committed only one foul when, after half an hour, Didier Drogba went in late on the most influential player in the game until that point, Ander Herrera. A couple of minutes later, Herrera was fouled again and a few minutes after that Chelsea led when a heavy John Terry challenge on Radamel Falcao wasn't penalised and Eden Hazard ran through to score.
Herrera faded from that moment and in the second half, Chelsea had their ground war and they withstood the aerial bombardment from Marouane Fellaini and the relentless search for a goal from United.
They relied on the men who had got them into this position and, as Herrera became less influential, Nemanja Matic dominated in his suffocating style.
When the final whistle went, Terry ran to embrace Gary Cahill before the players headed to acclaim the crowd. Two wins in their next two games and Chelsea will win the title with four matches to spare.
United had picked a team to win the game and Van Gaal left Stamford Bridge last night baffled that they hadn't. This is becoming a theme. Even QPR felt they deserved more from their encounter last weekend so it may be that Chelsea's strength is to allow their opponents to feel strong.
Mourinho had brought in Kurt Zouma for Ramires in an attempt to do something about United's most dangerous player: Fellaini. Zouma eventually handled Fellaini but in the first 30 minutes, they couldn't deal with the rest of United's midfield as easily as Herrera and Wayne Rooney dominated.
Chelsea had been playing badly and winning, which is supposedly the mark of champions, but this was something else, a masterpiece of resistance as they edged closer to Mourinho's third title at the club and his first since he returned.
The pitch was heavily watered beforehand and we wondered what was Mourinho up to because he had to be up to something. Perhaps he felt that Chelsea would dominate in a passing game while United went long to Fellaini but instead United's midfield dominated. A fine move early on began with Paddy McNair taking the ball out of defence and ended with Rooney's shot curling wide but running along behind the goal and creating the illusion that it had hit the net. David de Gea and the United fans at the other end cheered, believing the ball had gone in.
McNair went close shortly afterwards when he shot from distance but the moment had deeper significance. When McNair went forward, Radamel Falcao was in front of him but instead of passing, he shot. As the game went on, it became clear that not giving Falcao the ball was a very good idea.
Falcao had his first shot in the 67th minute when he picked up the ball outside the box but drove it wide and he then hit the post ten minutes later when he finally gave a glimpse of the player he once was.
United's first-half dominance was undermined by the lack of a striker. They had overcome Michael Carrick's absence in midfield but only by making themselves toothless upfront.
Chelsea had similar problems. Didier Drogba was there to win the ball in the air but he wasn't doing much more. When he got it on the ground in the early stages, he gave it away sloppily
Chelsea hadn't committed a foul in the first 27 minutes but that changed and the game changed with it. Chelsea interrupted United's rhythm and when Terry clattered through Falcao the ball ended up at Oscar's feet. That hadn't been a good starting point for Chelsea for most of the game but this time Oscar's flick bamboozled United's defence and Hazard was through and he made the finish look easy, which it rarely is against De Gea.
Van Gaal complained about the Terry challenge but he admitted he was helpless. "I cannot control the referee, that's the best way," he said. Some who have gone before him would have seen things another way but Van Gaal spoke positively about his team who, he felt, hadn't deserved to lose.
In the second half, the game became an epic tussle. Drogba was booked for a foul on McNair while Matic and Terry wrestled with Fellaini. Chelsea played on the break and United surged forward, with Luke Shaw excellent down the left.
United created chances but Chelsea are supreme at denying them. Van Gaal enthused about his team's football with good reason but Chelsea were excelling in their values as well. Angel Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj were sent on but Robin Van Persie remained on the bench as United looked for an equaliser..
By the end, Herrera had one more contribution as he was booked for diving in injury time. Yet United could leave Stamford Bridge feeling optimistic, even if they know they need a striker. Chelsea had a more profound satisfaction. They had triumphed in a game they turned into a battle and now they are poised to win the war.
Sunday Indo Sport