Luiz leaves furious Ferguson frustrated
Manchester United may still hold the destiny of the Premier League title in their own hands but they let a potentially decisive victory slip carelessly through their fingers at Chelsea.
Amid the acrimony felt by Sir Alex Ferguson as he stalked towards referee Martin Atkinson at the final whistle after Chelsea's 2-1 win, only to think again and march back to the dressing room, this painful reality will have played a large part in his fury and frustration.
Ferguson was in no mood to appreciate the irony wrapped within his anger at Atkinson's failure to detect David Luiz's crude foul on Wayne Rooney at close quarters, an offence that would have warranted a second yellow card for Chelsea's outstanding defender.
United and Rooney were the beneficiaries of similar generosity following that stray elbow to James McCarthy at Wigan on Saturday, teasing the line "we can't dispute referee's decisions" from Ferguson's assistant Mike Phelan.
It was a message lost on an incandescent Ferguson after a defeat which threw the title race wide open, gave confidence to Chelsea that this season may yet yield success and offered hope and consolation to Arsenal after that shattering Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City.
Those offering sympathy to Ferguson would not form much of a queue but he had every justification to be exasperated with those key decisions that went against United - even if his savage public condemnation of Atkinson struck a sour note.
Scratch under the surface, however, and Ferguson's emotional reaction at the conclusion of a wonderful match may also have been the result of his knowledge that United had this game in their grasp at half-time and let it go, bringing their tally of dropped points on the road this season to 22.
For 20 minutes before half-time United rediscovered the dash and authority that has proved elusive this season, dominating Chelsea in midfield and deserving the reward of Rooney's fine low strike on the half-hour.
All was well with Ferguson and United's world and it was Carlo Ancelotti who strode anxiously around his technical area in his trademark black raincoat, throwing his arms around in frustration and exchanging words with his backroom staff.
By the final whistle Ferguson was re-enacting those same scenes, holding the fourth official to account when Atkinson missed Luiz's cynical block on Rooney before turning in disbelief, pleading with arms outstretched, when what seemed little more than a coming together between Chelsea substitute Yuri Zhirkov and the excellent Chris Smalling - who could not get out of the way - resulted in a penalty 10 minutes from time.
Frank Lampard celebrates after scoring from the penalty spot. Photo: Getty
Of course many observers of United and Rooney's good fortune at Wigan may simply suggest what goes around comes around, but this cut no ice with Ferguson and there was weight to his complaint that his side got a raw deal.
Frank Lampard applied the formalities from the spot and Chelsea, who had equalised early in the second half through Luiz, were revived. Ancelotti's side may still be 12 points behind United with a game in hand, but they will be heartened by the manner in which they called on old powers and old qualities to turn this result around almost by force of will.
In the first 45 minutes we saw the Chelsea that has fallen short this season, no snap and fluency. In the second we saw some glimpses of the former powerhouse that eventually wrestled midfield control away from Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in a manner that will have increased Ferguson's pain.
It was all too much for Ferguson as he railed at Atkinson, saying: "You want a fair referee - or a strong referee, anyway - and we didn't get that. When I saw who the referee was I did fear it. I feared the worst."
He added: "The Luiz foul was six yards in front of the referee, maybe eight if we give him the benefit of the doubt, no obstructions whatsoever. I don't know how he stayed on the pitch. And the penalty was very soft. In actual fact, Chris has taken the ball and the player's left his leg in. Very soft. Amazing."
Chelsea are unlikely to retain their crown, Ancelotti admitted as much despite the win, but United just about remain in their sights and this was a performance that suggests the champions cannot be relied upon to go quietly.
United remain in slender control of the title race but the one final insult to Ferguson's injury, the sending off of defensive colossus Nemanja Vidic in stoppage time for a second yellow card, means he will miss Sunday's visit to Liverpool, who will love plotting an ambush that would damage their arch-rivals' hopes of overhauling their total of 18 titles.
If United perform like they did in the first half, then they remain firm favourites to win the Premier League. It was this aspect of the evening that will have satisfied Ferguson and made eventual defeat even tougher to take.
In that spell of domination, possession was king and United ruled. The ball fizzed around with the trademark authority and they could have added to Rooney's goal.
Both sides played a full part in a feast of a game where superiority ebbed and flowed in a blur of attacks and counter attacks. It was good old-fashioned slug-fest with no sign of a bus parked in either penalty area - a credit to both managers on a night when the importance of the three points was illustrated in their bold approach.
For Ancelotti, this was sweet relief from the torment of recent weeks and the allegations that he exercises flimsy control on his players in the wake of Ashley Cole's air-rifle antics.
He has also unearthed a gem, albeit a very expensive one, in the corkscrew-haired Brazilian Luiz. Rough diamond he may be, as reckless challenges on Rooney and Javier Hernandez proved, but once those edges are knocked off Chelsea have a potentially world-class talent.
It drew a Twitter tribute from Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, admiration no doubt helped by the significant impact Luiz's performance and Chelsea's victory had on the Gunners' own title aspirations.
He Tweeted: "David Luiz is looking to be a very good player and still only 23. He's got class. Defenders playing well with the ball always my favourites."
Luiz defends with purpose, tackles with the force of a heavy goods vehicle - not always on the right side of the law - and attacks with enterprise. He put away the 54th-minute strike that drew Chelsea level with the aplomb of a £50m striker not a £25m defender.
It was done in the manner that Fernando Torres currently craves. The Spaniard had another night of relatively fruitless toil, although there was an increasing sharpness about his touch, running and general work that merited praise from Ancelotti.
This all added up to a missed opportunity for United, who are now only four points ahead of Arsenal having played a game more and facing the prospect of a trip to Anfield without the suspended Vidic and injured Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, leaving Wes Brown to step in and partner Smalling.
If Chelsea's victory did not exactly open the door for their own title aspirations, it has certainly left it more than ajar for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. All factors that contributed to Ferguson's mood matching his black overcoat as he made his way down the Stamford Bridge tunnel in defeat.