Rooney and Cole dodge the fans' bullets to show their thick skins
Contrary to the melodramatic protestations of Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti, nobody appeared to be in the mood either to kill Ashley Cole or electrocute Wayne Rooney here, even if the main centre of attention had been the battle of the bad boys at the Bridge.
Rather, plenty of pantomime jeering and the oh so predictable cries of "shooooot" whenever Cole received the ball in the United half seemed to be the order of the night, as if nobody here was about to take this tale of two miscreants too seriously. When it comes to sinning, memories are of goldfish-length in the Premier League.
Anyway, the game was so magnificently compelling, the action so see-saw and intense, that the personal duel, as it should have done, quickly became a sideshow in one of the best games of the season.
Still, what felt most unsurprising about the pair's performances was that they were able to play with such skill and vigour while seeming wholly unaffected by the constant accompaniment of ridicule every time they picked up the ball. There are those who will swear blind, after this weekend, that the pair must be plain thick. That may not be fair but their thickest of skins could not be in dispute here.
However, there could only be one winner and though it was the Chelsea faithful who started by cursing Mark Clattenburg's failure to hand out the dismissal to Rooney during Saturday's game with Wigan -- which would and should have kept him out last night -- it was Cole who ended up with the biggest smile, with Chelsea's title hopes left just about flickering.
Rooney's goal on the half-hour was a thing of beauty, mind, something English football has not seen from him as often as it has needed this past year. He was given preposterous amounts of time and space before he launched a bullet which, naturally, the jokers reckoned Cole would have been proud of firing.
In truth, though, there were plenty of good reasons for everyone here to marvel over just exactly how either of them had managed to take the field at all for such a pivotal game.
Of course, in a saner world, Cole should have been nowhere to be seen, having been made an example of by his club and reflecting on his idiocy at playing with firearms, while Rooney would have been serving a suspension for using his elbow as an offensive weapon at an opponent's head.
Instead, they were out there large as life, one spared by Chelsea's spinelessness in responding to an act which would have caused instant dismissal in right-thinking workplaces and the other by Clattenburg's feebleness in not acknowledging a blatant mistake. And the common theme?
The suspicion that they were both protected by their own vast celebrity. Ferguson thinks there is a witch-hunt against Rooney, that the media are waiting to pounce gleefully on every misdemeanour or moment of indiscipline. That is paranoid nonsense; more precisely, those who chronicle the finest English talent of his generation actually long to see Rooney back to the unstoppable force of late 2009 and early 2010 before he got clouted against Bayern Munich.
No, football wants and needs to see a transcendent Rooney, not a transgressing Rooney, and we were treated, gladly, to more of the former than the latter. Powering through from deep, instrumental in counter-attacks of speed and precision, he had one of his most effective nights of the campaign.
He missed what looked a perfect chance to head United into the lead, making such a hash that it seemed to sum up the worst aspects of his season, yet within minutes he reminded everyone of his most rare of talents on the half-hour with a tremendous strike.
"Who didn't make a mistake in his life?" Ancelotti said on Monday in defence of Cole. He might as well have bewailed, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first pellet'. Yet the one thing you can say about Cole is that he really does let the criticism wash over him.
He powered down the left flank and marauded forward without seemingly a care in the world. And yes, he did have that one shot too, a free-kick which sailed over, much to the glee of United fans behind the goal. The poorer marksman had the last laugh, though. (© Daily Telegraph, London)