On an afternoon strewn with goals, red cards, drama and controversy, Manchester United climbed to within one point of the league summit with a 3-2 victory over nine-man Chelsea.
Roberto Di Matteo’s team recovered from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 early in the second half but had Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres sent off before substitute Javier Hernandez scored a 75th minute winner from what appeared to be an offside position.
A David Luiz own goal and Robin van Persie’s ninth goal of the season had put United in command after 12 minutes but Chelsea responded in style, with Juan Mata’s free kick and Ramires’ header either side of the break.
Just as the visiting gained control, Ivanovic and Torres were sent off within five minutes of one another midway through the second period, ensuring the home side played the last 22 minutes with only nine men.
United took full advantage, but it needed a controversial goal from Hernandez to give Sir Alex Ferguson’s team their first win at Stamford Bridge in a decade.
With John Terry serving the second match of a four-game domestic suspension, Chelsea picked the same starting 11 that won so handsomely at Tottenham in its previous Premier League engagement. United brought in Tom Cleverley to partner Michael Carrick in central midfield and Ashley Young got the nod on the left flank in his first league start in two months.
Before the action began, all eyes were on the pre-match handshake. Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole drew a line under all that has happened over the past year by ignoring their lingering grievances to shake one hands.
It was Cole’s defending, rather than his manners, that soon came under the microscope. Both of United’s goals inside the opening 12 minutes were forged on his flank as the visiting side focused on the lack of protection the left back was getting in front of him.
After four minutes, Rooney received the ball out wide and his expert cut back was whacked right footed against the post by van Persie but the rebound struck the helpless Luiz and bounced past Petr Cech for an own goal.
Eight minutes later, Van Persie was unerring with the accuracy of his second right-footer. Antonio Valencia spotted him unmarked in the box and, with complete concentration on the task, the former Arsenal man slotted in his sixth goal at Stamford Bridge.
The statistics suggested Chelsea had a mountain to climb. Before today, United had been two or more goals up in 346 Premier League games and never lost, winning 336 and drawing 10.
With Rooney playing more as a third central midfielder than a second striker, the home side initially found it hard to break down what was a 4-5-1 formation.
But Chelsea raised its game leading up to the break, forcing three athletic saves from David De Gea before Mata made Rooney pay for hauling down Eden Hazard outside the box with a beautiful curling free kick after 44 minutes.
The home side had the bit between its teeth at the start of the second half as it reminded United whose house it was.
After 53 minutes, United failed to clear following more excellent play from Mata and Ramires rose above Cleverley to emphatically head in Oscar’s byline cross for the equalizer.
It all unraveled for Chelsea after that point. Ivanovic deservedly received a red card for a professional foul on Young after 63 minutes, cynically clipping the winger as he raced through on goal.
Inexplicably, Fernando Torres followed the right-back down the tunnel five minutes later. The Spaniard received a second yellow for simulation, even though replays clearly showed there was contact from Jonny Evans.
Down to nine men, Chelsea struggled to contain United but the officials ensured Roberto Di Matteo’s post-match press conference would be an all-ticket affair by failing to spot that Hernandez was offside when he tapped in the winner.