Chelsea is back
Issued on: Modified:
Mickael Ballack's two goals brought the London club victory over Manchester United in what was an epic match. Chelsea now shares the league's top spot with United, with two games left in the season.
Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack breathed new life into the Premier League title race as his late penalty clinched a dramatic 2-1 win over Manchester United on Saturday.
Avram Grant's side are now level on points with leaders United with two games to play after Ballack's double strike settled a thrilling clash at Stamford Bridge.
Ballack opened the scoring in the first half before Wayne Rooney punished a horrendous mistake by Ricardo Carvalho to equalise after the break.
United had one hand on the title at that stage but Michael Carrick gifted Chelsea a lifeline when he handled in the penalty area with four minutes left and Ballack took full advantage.
Sir Alex Ferguson's reigning champions still hold the advantage thanks to their vastly superior goal difference and wins at home to West Ham and at Wigan will guarantee them a 17th English league crown.
But Chelsea have at least ensured the battle will go down to the wire thanks to Ballack's heroics.
With United able to afford a defeat at Stamford Bridge and still stay top on goal difference, Ferguson opted to give priority to next Tuesday's Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona.
The Scot left Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez on the bench, while there was no place in the 16 for Patrice Evra or Paul Scholes.
Chelsea have European commitments as well but Grant had no choice but to name all his stars, with only Frank Lampard absent following the death of his mother Pat on Thursday.
Only a win would do for Chelsea and they started at a ferocious pace.
Michael Essien set the tone with a dipping shot that cleared the crossbar, before his low strike forced Edwin van der Sar into action for the first time.
The Blues bristled with a muscular aggression that made it clear they wouldn't allow United to retain the title on their patch without a fight.
Nemanja Vidic was a victim of that physicality when Drogba inadvertently caught him with a knee in his jaw. The centre-back had to be stretchered off after the blow knocked a tooth through his lip.
Vidic's departure seemed to unsettle the leaders and Joe Cole almost took advantage in the 21st minute.
Cole was granted acres of space to surge into the penalty area and, although Rio Ferdinand appeared to have closed him down, the ball trickled back to the England winger, who unleased a curling shot that beat van der Sar and cannoned off a post.
United's discomfort was clear as Ferdinand hurriedly hoofed a clearance into touch, while Rooney, frustrated at his isolated role up front, angrily berated Nani for choosing the wrong pass.
The breakthrough Chelsea's dominance deserved arrived in first half stoppage time. Drogba showed tremendous strength to work space for a perfectly-weighted cross to the far post, where the unmarked Ballack planted his close range header past van der Sar.
Ballack's goal was the signal for his team-mates to stage a tribute to Lampard's mother as they joined together and held aloft a shirt with the inscription 'Pat Lampard RIP'.
Ferguson was never going to stand for such a lacklustre display and, with their ears likely still ringing from his team-talk, United emerged with renewed focus after half-time.
For all their increased competitiveness United couldn't bring Petr Cech into action until Carvalho presented them with the equaliser in the 57th minute.
When Portuguese defender Paulo Ferreira played a pass to Carvalho there was no danger but the Portugal defender panicked and hit a careless ball back towards John Terry without looking first.
Rooney gratefully seized on the woefully misdirected pass and, with only Cech to beat, made no mistake with a low shot that went in off a post.
Chelsea's title dreams were in danger of fading and Ryan Giggs nearly delivered the killer blow with a shot that Cech parried low to his right.
The hosts had to go for broke now. The Blues poured forward time and again and the pressure told in the 86th minute when Carrick inexplicably handled Essien's cross.
Referee Alan Wiley's assistant flagged for the offense and United could have few complaints. Ballack stepped up and calmly sent van der Sar the wrong way with his spot-kick.
There was still time for more drama as Ashley Cole cleared Ronaldo's shot off the line, then Andriy Shevchenko did the same to deny Darren Fletcher. But suddenly the title race is back on.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe