Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United

Big games so often fail to live up to expectation. Not this one.

United, gunning for a 19th league title, and Chelsea, reigning English champions, produced a barnstorming, end-to-end game of football that left no neutral disappointed.

That won’t sate Sir Alex’s men, though, who took the lead at Stamford Bridge through Wayne Rooney before surrendering it early in the second half and then, fatally, conceding a late penalty. What's more, referee Martin Atkinson's decision to award the spot-kick came barely two minutes after Blues defender David Luiz, already on a yellow card, escaped punishment after crudely halting Rooney at the other end.

Frank Lampard ignored the Reds' protests to convert the chance from 12 yards and hand the Blues victory, but United, however aggrieved after the final whistle, remain at the top of the Barclays Premier League, four points clear of Arsenal.

Perhaps more worrying than Tuesday's defeat was Nemanja Vidic's second yellow card in injury time. It means he will now miss United’s trip to Anfield on Sunday. That’s the next challenge that faces the Reds and one Sir Alex must now ensure his troops are prepared for, both physically and mentally.

Chelsea’s victory on Tuesday night was something of a shock given the Blues’ recent form, although just as big a surprise was Sir Alex’s team selection. In each of the past 165 matches, the Reds boss has made at least one tweak to his starting XI. Against Chelsea, though, he put his faith in the same 11 who triumphed at Wigan on Saturday. That meant starts for John O’Shea and Chris Smalling in defence, while Dimitar Berbatov had to settle for a spot on the bench.

The game began brightly and Chelsea had the ball in the net after a minute. But Martin Atkinson’s whistle had already blown by the time Fernando Torres’ strike flew into the top corner after Vidic had cleared a Florent Malouda cross.

Minutes later, the Blues’ French connection of Malouda and Nicolas Anelka combined to fashion a chance for the winger. But Malouda’s shot, side-footed from the edge of the penalty area, was straight at Edwin van der Sar and the Dutchman clung gratefully to the ball. The Dutchman would face tougher tests before the night was out.

United, meanwhile, were uncharacteristically careless in possession for much of the opening 15 minutes. Even Paul Scholes, who usually treats the ball with the sort of care and attention reserved for newborn babies, was guilty of dwelling for too long or misplacing passes.

The Reds did settle, though, and with a quarter of an hour gone, Nani played Patrice Evra in behind the Chelsea defence. The Frenchman – perhaps shooting – squared the ball across the six-yard box but Rooney couldn’t arrive at the far post in time to apply the finish.

The England striker then spurned a more presentable chance when he shouldered the ball wide when attempting a header before a frantic opening 25 minutes came to an end after Evra floored Luiz with a long-range shot that took the wind out of the Brazilian.

All that bluster was just the prelude to Rooney’s fabulous opener, though. The forward, who’d endured a rather frustrating start to the fixture, collected Nani’s pass 25 yards from goal and initially looked as if he would lay the ball off to Michael Carrick. But with no Chelsea defender moving to close down Rooney, the Reds’no.10 took another touch, advanced, and drilled a low shot inside Petr Cech’s right-hand post.

Incredibly, for a player with a penchant for the spectacular, it was Rooney’s first goal from outside the penalty area since February 2008. Importantly, in a fixture Sir Alex had branded “must-win” before kick-off, it handed United advantage going into the half-time break.

That lead was only threatened once before the interval, and the Reds had van der Sar and Vidic to thank for keeping the Blues goalless. First, van der Sar made a fine save down to his right from Frank Lampard’s low free-kick. Branislav Ivanovic arrived first and looked certain to tap in the rebound but Edwin somehow palmed his effort onto Vidic, who’d raced behind the goalkeeper and onto the line. Then, as the ball looped into the air, van der Sar, by this stage on the ground and facing the wrong way, clawed the ball away to safety.

The Dutchman again proved his worth early in the second period, fielding an Ashley Cole cross and then a Lampard shot with consummate ease. But there was nothing he could do when Luiz rifled home the equaliser on 54 minutes. The Brazilian pounced first on a loose ball after the Reds had failed to sufficiently clear a Chelsea corner and lashed a volley into the bottom corner.

Chelsea were back in it and soon pushing for another. Stamford Bridge, usually more cathedral than cauldron, came alive and Carlo Ancelotti threw on Didier Drogba. But the Reds rode the storm and even carved out a golden chance on the counter-attack, which Rooney fluffed when caught in two minds between shooting and crossing.

But just as United looked like edging back into the game, Chelsea were handed a lifeline when Yuri Zhirkov tumbled over Chris Smalling’s outstretched right leg and referee Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot. It was a decision Sir Alex later branded as "very soft" but Lampard made no mistake with the penalty, slamming the ball into the roof of the net from 12 yards. It felt like a dagger to United hearts, condemning the Reds to defeat in a game neither side deserved to lose.

With a trip to Anfield scheduled this Sunday, the Reds can't afford to dwell on refereeing decisions or stew in self-pity. Instead, Sir Alex's men must bounce back and display the sort of spirit that's characterised so many of United's title-winning sides of the past.