There might just be life in the title race yet. There is certainly life in Manchester United, who came up with a dramatic injury-time winner to move within two points of the leaders just when it seemed Chelsea had done enough to hold Sir Alex Ferguson's team for the second time this season.
The scorer was none other than Diego Forlan, whose days as a standing joke are nowlong gone. A few eyebrows were raised when Ruud van Nistelrooy made way for the Uruguayan 19 minutes from the end, but where the Dutch striker had spent an unprofitable afternoon running up against a commanding Marcel Desailly, Forlan ran on to Juan Sebastian Veron's pass with seconds remaining and produced a finish that was explosive in almost every sense.
Considering Veron too had only come on as a substitute five minutes from the end, this was brinkmanship of the highest order from Ferguson. Some would say it needed to be, as United's starting line-up was so ineffective the home side barely managed a shot on goal for the whole of the first half.
Theoretically back on grass after last week's adventures on the Stamford Bridge mud-flats, Chelsea suddenly found themselves all at sea yesterday in what amounted to the Premiership's second-place play-off. Their manager, Claudio Ranieri, stood Canute-like at the apex of the technical area as Manchester United first washed out his team's deserved lead, then summoned waves of attacks throughout the second half and finally drowned the visitors in stoppage-time with a goal by the unpredictable substitute Diego Forlan.
Although Ranieri would not have sniffed at a draw at any stage from the interval onwards, a point apiece for Arsenal's two closest rivals would have benefited only the champions. As it was, they will be obliged to beat West Ham at Highbury this afternoon – admittedly not the most demanding of assignments – to restore the five-point margin at the top that existed before the now traditional Saturday lunchtime start at Old Trafford.
The turf there was hardly of bowling-green quality, which did not quite excuse the standard of football in the opening half an hour. Then goals by Eidur Gudjohnsen and Paul Scholes in the space of nine minutes set in motion a different game altogether, something much closer to what had been expected from old rivals who tend to set about each other with scant regard to the conventions of home advantage. Chelsea, dominant until Scholes equalised with United's first shot – as late as the 39th minute – failed, however, to maintain that attacking tradition thereafter, and were eventually punished.
The loss of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who showed no stomach for continuing after Phil Neville's legitimate early challenge, did not help and made the later changes all the more questionable. Withdrawing Jesper Gronkjaer soon after half-time for the more defensive Enrique de Lucas sent the wrong message, and taking off Gudjohnsen with six minutes to play left little Gianfranco Zola as the London side's only attacker.
United could hardly have anticipated parity by half-time and the manner of achieving it was fortuitous to say the least. Lampard, otherwise exemplary, hit a back pass a little too fiercely for the untrustworthy surface and his goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, who should have found touch, sent the ball straight to David Beckham. England's captain produced what Ray Wilkins in the Sky Sports studio called "the cross of the season'' on to the unmarked Scholes' head for an equaliser that strained credulity.
United became inspired, Chelsea deflated. Solskjaer, pushed into attack, hit a post and Van Nistelrooy, 21 goals this season, set his sights. Denied only by Cudicini's superb, redeeming one-handed save, he was unlucky to be replaced by Forlan, who appeared to have wasted the final chance of the afternoon in the 90th minute.
But there was another to come. Veron, an even later substitute, angled the pass forward, Desailly's focus blurred for the first time and Forlan was through to defeat Cudicini and Ranieri's pretenders.
Sir Alex Ferguson still commands three of the attributes that earned his knighthood: perseverance, desire and, as important as any, luck.
Yesterday lunchtime, eclipsing Chelsea in stoppage time, Manchester United committed almost an act of piracy. They won against the sway of the game, they won with a goal so late that the opponents barely had time to kick off, and they won through a combination of two substitutes.
Juan Sebastian Veron provided the pass, Diego Forlan, now the goal-scoring darling of Old Trafford, struck it venomously high into the net — and shades of the Nou Camp European Cup win in 1999. Ferguson was a tactical genius and a winner all the way.
Chelsea came north intent on proving themselves championship candidates and were frustrated on a happy hunting ground - in their nine previous visits to Old Trafford in the Premiership, they had lost only once - that had turned into a cabbage patch.
To state that Claudio Ranieri's team were unlucky is not to disparage the ultimate splendour of Manchester United's triumph through a goal designed and scored by South American substitutes who, not so long ago, were being cited in some quarters as evidence that Sir Alex Ferguson might be losing his touch in the transfer market.
No, Ferguson's pieces are once again falling into their new-year place. United are not yet ready to concede another title to Arsenal, who would have shared their fellow Londoners' disappointment when Diego Forlan joyfully converted Seba Veron's majestic pass in the 92nd minute.
But the wry observations of my press-box colleagues about the pitch - to the effect that Chelsea would be entitled to following the example of Charlton after they had lost on a Stamford Bridge sandpit last weekend - addressed a serious point. What exactly is an acceptable surface? The best that could be said of this one is that it was not obviously dangerous, except to the pride of world-renowned players who were forever having schoolboy errors thrust upon them.
The scale of the stadium, apparently, is to blame. New turf must be laid from time to time and, when the operation was last conducted two months ago, Manchester's skies perversely declined to supply rain for a spell, restricting the binding process or something.