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Robin van Persie plus a phantom free kick ruin Chelsea's weekend

Alex Livesey

Two trips to Manchester, two almighty kicks to the groin of the gestalt Chelsea support. It should be considered as a positive sign that we've come so close to getting the full six points from two of the trickiest away fixtures of the season, and the table definitely makes for happy viewing, but wins turning into draws -- which is, of course, what happened today at Old Trafford -- is always about what might have been.

Eight clear of Manchester City. Nine games played. It would have been essentially the perfect start to a season in which we're expected to claim the title. We know every point counts, and the two that vanished through an imaginary free kick and then Robin van Persie's late goal were serious (albeit hardly fatal) blows.

1-1 at Manchester United being a fundamentally disappointing result would seem like a completely alien idea even five years ago, but this isn't your grumpy, red-cheeked grandfather's United, and Chelsea were expected to roll through them fairly easily. But while they're weaker than they were during the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Red Devils are hardly a joke, and the first half was evidence enough that were were in for a fight.

Van Persie had the first sight of goal after slipping in behind the defence, but Thibaut Courtois was more than up to the task, racing out to block off the shot. And the best chances came -- despite some hard work from the hosts in midfield, where they succeeded in shutting down Cesc Fabregas -- at the other end. Branislav Ivanovic could easily have had a penalty when he was grappled by Chris Smalling, and David de Gea had to be alert when Didier Drogba met Oscar's smart pullback with a near-post drive.

Yes, Drogba. Diego Costa was, in theory, going to be able to start this match. Instead, he wasn't in the squad, leading Chelsea with a 36-year-old striker to lead the line. This had some fairly obvious downsides: Drogba doesn't have the stamina to conduct a full press for all or even most of the match, and the Blues had to settle for a half-hearted semi-harassment of the United back line for much of the game. But there are also benefits to having the Ivorian around.

In terms of style points, it should have been Eden Hazard's goal. The Belgian had been an unholy terror all game, getting Rafael booked so early that the right back resorted to hiding behind Smalling whenever Hazard was in possession, and with the best move of the match Hazard sauntered through the United defence, exchanged passes with Drogba, broke free on goal ... and then had a misplaced shot turned behind for a corner.

But Drogba is there to help out with corner kicks. Fabregas swung the ball to the near post, and there he was. If the goal against Maribor was a replica of the moment that won the Champions League, this was a reenactment of the moment which saved it. Drogba remains a monster in the air, and his header was unstoppable. De Gea was left picking the ball out of the back of his net, and Chelsea had a vital lead.

We responded by holding possession for the next 15 minutes. It was a superb example of how you're meant to take the sting out of the game, with Fabregas and Nemanja Matic instrumental in keeping the hosts completely any utterly stifled. But that spell couldn't last -- we were fouling too often whenever United were on the ball, and Phil Dowd was taking the opportunity to hand out yellow cards like sweets on Halloween.

Eventually that was going to cost us. Branislav Ivanovic was booked for fouling Adnan Januzaj on the edge of the box, which left the Serbian on a yellow as we headed into injury time. And when Angel di Maria fell over in the general vicinity of the big right back, Dowd had seen enough. A second yellow card (the seventh Chelsea were 'awarded' in the match) was displayed, Ivanovic was dismissed, and United had a free kick against ten men.

Courtois did well to keep out the initial header from Marouane Fellaini, but he was helpless against Van Persie's followup. It wasn't as painful as the goal we conceded at the Etihad -- that this didn't come from Frank Lampard and that City had contrived to lose at Upton Park on Saturday softened the blow somewhat -- but it was still gut-wrenching. We were still reeling from being pegged back when the whistle blew for full time.

It's tempting to wallow at this point. But even if you take the opportunity to have a good sulk at our inability to either kill off games or hold onto narrow leads, remember this: we gained further ground on Manchester City this weekend. And when a tremendously disappointing weekend helps out in the title race, life isn't so bad.

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