Manchester United dropped Wayne Rooney to the bench before blowing a two-goal lead and drawing 2-2 with West Bromwich Albion, while leader Chelsea was held to a scoreless draw at Aston Villa in the Premier League.
United didn't appear to be missing Rooney when Javier Hernandez and Nani scored in the first half yesterday. But after the break, Chris Brunt's free kick went in off Patrice Evra before Somen Tchoyi tapped in from six yards after Edwin van der Saar dropped a cross from Brunt.
Rooney played the last 20 minutes as United drew a third straight match. "It's just explicable - it turned from a fantastic first-half performance to one where we have given the game away," United manager Alex Ferguson said.
"We should have punished them and scored four or five before halftime." United was third five points behind Chelsea, which has collected just four points from its last three matches.
The North London sides both rallied to win 2-1, with Arsenal beating Birmingham and Tottenham triumphing at Fulham. Bolton also beat Stoke 2-1, while Newcastle was held to 2-2 by Wigan and Wolverhampton drew 1-1 with West Ham.
At Old Trafford, all eyes were on the star striker wrapped up on the bench as Ferguson fueled suggestions of a rift with Rooney by dropping him. While Rooney was dealing with problems in his personal life last month, he was rested for several matches by United with the official reason being that he was struggling with an ankle injury.
But Rooney directly contradicted his manager by revealing on Tuesday that he had no fitness concerns. He had to wait until the 71st minute to come off the bench, but by that time it was already 2-2.
Hernandez pounced quickly after five minute to tap home after Scott Carson spilled Nani's free kick. The Portugal winger gave United a 2-0 halftime lead but the Baggies hit back with their two quick second-half goals.
The result lifted United to third but it could drop one place if Manchester City beats Blackpool on Sunday and closes the gap on Chelsea to just two points.
It was a frustrating trip to Birmingham for Chelsea although Nicolas Anelka could have been celebrating a dramatic winner had his downward header not bounced up and against the crossbar.
Villa was also presented with a chance to win the game in stoppage time when Nigel Reo-Coker shot wide when one-on-one with goalkeeper Petr Cech.