Man Utd unmoved but Chelsea buoyed
Crazy. Chaotic. Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas showed a commendable command of understatement after a game that offered comfort to the connoisseur and hope to the hopeless.
It was in keeping with the twisted logic of Manchester United's 3-1 win against Chelsea that Villas-Boas seemed more satisfied in defeat than the pursed-lipped Sir Alex Ferguson in victory.
This says much for Ferguson's standards but also for a Chelsea performance that offered plenty of encouragement to their young, but highly self-assured, manager.
The final reckoning saw United complete their 18th successive victory at Old Trafford, equalling a record that has stood since 1904/05 and - ominously for their challengers - Ferguson's best start to a league season at United.
And yet there was so much more to this match than simply the scoreline. Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres showed a finesse that was beyond mere mortals but also a fallibility that showed the simple marshes hackers that football can even make fools of the best.
Rooney, inevitably, played his full part and scored as United went into a flattering 3-0 half-time lead, adding to Chris Smalling's suspiciously offside header and Nani's magnificent strike. He then suffered what Chelsea captain John Terry might call a "Moscow Moment" when his feet disappeared from under him as he scuffed a penalty embarrassingly wide.
Rooney's penalty slip deprived him of a 10th goal in five Premier League games
And Torres, who showed flashes of the movement and menace that made him so feared for Liverpool and Spain, followed up a finish that hinted at old glories for his first goal of the season with a miss that evoked memories of that lesser Anfield light Ronny Rosenthal.
As someone who was privileged - and the word is used advisedly - to be at Aston Villa 19 years ago when Rosenthal hit the frame of an unattended goal from eight yards, it was a moment that provoked a haunting flashback.
If there was consolation for Torres once the taunts of the Stretford End died, it was that the sum total of everything he had done previously, from his goal to the intelligent running and the unselfish creation of a crucial first-half chance that Ramires missed, added up to arguably his finest performance since he signed for Chelsea in January.
There are still as many questions as answers surrounding Torres. When he chose to square for Ramires in the first half Old Trafford's panel of judges was divided. Did he pass up an opportunity to shoot that a striker in full flow, and sure in his powers, would have grasped at, or is he still so clear-headed in his struggles that he calculated Ramires was obviously better placed?
To these eyes it was the latter. The fault lay with Ramires' hesitation that allowed United keeper David de Gea to save rather than Torres relinquishing his true responsibility.
And if the Spaniard had taken that most presentable of chances after 83 minutes, Chelsea would have had a total of 12 minutes, including stoppage time, to fashion an equaliser. Evidence for the prosecution certainly, but balance suggests Torres showed enough here to confirm he can still regain some of the old lustre.
There is not normally much mileage in asking a manager if he has uncovered consolation in his first league loss since April 2010, a 3-2 home defeat by Benfica when in charge at Academica in Portugal, but Villas-Boas could take heart from Chelsea's performance.
Chelsea were a bolder beast from the one that surrendered so tamely under Carlo Ancelotti at Old Trafford late last season. They created 21 opportunities, demonstrated a tactical boldness that reflected well on their 33-year-old leader, and left Old Trafford with an increased sense of their own importance in the Premier League title race.
Villas-Boas has a touch of his mentor Jose Mourinho about him in his concrete-clad confidence, if not in his more obvious attacking intent then certainly in his willingness to make a decisive substitution. It came at half-time when a labouring Frank Lampard was removed to allow Chelsea to offer the swifter support Torres requires in the shape of the impressive Juan Mata, Daniel Sturridge and Nicolas Anelka.
Anelka ran left, Sturridge foraged right and Mata - looking quality in everything he did - set the charges in the hole. This may represent Chelsea's way forward with Torres and result in Lampard sitting out more action.
And yet, for all this, United again found the way to win when not at their best. Not only this, but they also strengthened their position as Chelsea were beaten and Manchester City showed a fallibility that coach Roberto Mancini hoped had been forgotten by conceding a two-goal lead at Fulham.
If there was a measure of solace for City, it came in the huge roar that swept around Old Trafford when their result was announced at half-time - a sure sign that United know where their most serious threat is coming from this season.
This was where the comfort ended, though, because for all Ferguson's obvious annoyance at the concession of chances and wasting of possession in crucial areas, United continue to win in a manner that will worry the contenders who will note their best form normally arrives with the turn of the year.
United also demonstrated their great range of attacking threat. Rooney was not quite at his best and Ashley Young subdued - so step forward Nani with a brilliant goal and a performance to terrorise Chelsea's defence.
The movement of Javier Hernandez was also a constant danger until his game was cut short by a shocking late challenge by Ashley Cole that should have brought a red card for the England defender.
United's outstanding player, however, came in defence. Phil Jones may be a rookie at 19, but he looks the complete back four player, marauding forward to play his part in United's third goal while offering a towering, inspirational presence that belies his youth.
Villas-Boas left Old Trafford with a renewed belief Chelsea can be title contenders. Ferguson, for all the scowls, departed with the three points. And this is why even now there is a growing belief that United are already on course to claim a 20th title.