As befitted the two sides' need for victory (and teams chosen), Chelsea got off to the brighter start at Old Trafford, Juan Mata the predictable creative source. The Spaniard first found Demba Ba with a fine cross after the United defence and Anders Lindegaard switched off, but the Senegalese striker's effort was appalling. He would have another similar chance after more good work from Mata shortly afterwards, but once again the contact on the ball was insufficient to punish Lindegaard.
Despite United's sluggish start, the visitors could not make the most of it, Oscar going closest after a fine run saw him fire off a decent effort which Lindegaard tipped onto the post. After an initially lively opening, however, chances proved to be at a premium, although United picked themselves up towards the end of the first 45 minutes to threaten the Chelsea goal.
Robin van Persie first got on the end of a fine Ryan Giggs pass, but his reach let him down as he could only prod it wide of goal. The Dutchman had another chance shortly afterwards after a cross from Nemanja Vidic, of all people, storming down the left channel, but although he did well to get power on his header, he could only direct it straight into the arms of Petr Cech.
The second half continued in much the same fashion, and there was an early moment of controversy when Ryan Giggs hauled back David Luiz on the edge of the area for what Chelsea insisted was a penalty. Replay showed that it was a foul, although outside the area, but nothing was given by Howard Webb and play continued.
Alex Ferguson then made a bizarre decision, substituting his two midfielders for Alexander Buttner and Wayne Rooney as United went in search of a winner. Rooney had an opportunity soon after entering the fray, but headed wide from Rafael's cross, before Juan Mata had an even better aerial chance from a superb Frank Lampard ball, but despite a free header, the Spaniard wasted the opportunity.
Manchester United went as close as they could have done to winning it with ten minutes to go as Rafael surged past David Luiz into the area, but a rush of blood left the fullback unable to pick out a teammate, and although his effort was almost diverted into the goal by Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea survived.
It hadn't looked like coming, but with just three minutes to go, Chelsea found a way through. United felt that Ramires had fouled Wayne Rooney in the build-up, but play was waved on and eventually Juan Mata finished the move, firing home via Oscar's cutback to stun United.
There was barely any time for a response, but United's hopes were largely ended immediately afterwards after Rafael saw red for kicking out at David Luiz as the two tussled near the corner flag. A hugely disappointing display from United, and certain clubs in North London may feel aggrieved at the team they sent out to contest the game. Nonetheless, Chelsea have perhaps made themselves favourites to clinch at least one of the top four places as the battle for the Champions League heats up.