Nemanja Vidic (left) scored United's second after 23 minutes
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Old Trafford
Manchester United moved to within a point of a record 19th title after a deserved win against closest rivals Chelsea at an exultant Old Trafford.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson insisted victory would effectively end Chelsea's reign as champions and return the Premier League crown to United, writing a fresh chapter in the club's glittering history.
And United wasted no time in exerting their authority on Chelsea as Javier Hernandez struck after only 36 seconds and captain Nemanja Vidic headed the second in a blistering opening spell that established the foundations for what is likely to prove a decisive victory.
Frank Lampard gave Chelsea a glimmer of hope with a scrappy strike midway through the second half - but it was United who still looked more likely to score, even in the anxious closing stages before Old Trafford erupted in celebration as Howard Webb blew the final whistle.
And as if to emphasise the significance of events, Ferguson was even moved to bow in front of the Stretford End as he marched triumphantly towards the dressing room.
Poor first half cost Chelsea - Ancelotti
United now only need to avoid defeat in one of their final two games, away at Blackburn Rovers and at home to Blackpool, to complete the formalities and overhaul the record of 18 titles they share with arch-rivals Liverpool.
Ferguson will relish the moment after famously vowing to "knock Liverpool off their perch" when he came to Old Trafford from Aberdeen in 1986. The statistic will be a glittering reflection of the success of his mission.
For Chelsea and their manager Carlo Ancelotti the outlook is now uncertain as they end the season empty handed with an ageing squad and questions surrounding the future of the Italian.
United swarmed all over Chelsea from the first whistle, fired up to extend an advantage that had been reduced to only three points in recent weeks, adding to the pressure of this high-octane Premier League occasion.
Ferguson was not short of heroes, but it was the unsung Park Ji-sung who set the tone with his tireless efforts as he refused to give Chelsea a moment's peace in midfield, making players of the calibre of Lampard and Michael Essien look laboured and pedestrian in the process.
The United manager has also uncovered a potent and beautifully balanced strike partnership in the poacher Hernandez and creator Wayne Rooney, who made it a harrowing experience for Chelsea's £25m defender David Luiz, who was put out of his misery after only 45 minutes.
All that remains is for United to officially claim the crown, but as Sir Bobby Charlton raised his hands in elation at the final whistle, Old Trafford celebrated as if the job was done.
United were missing Patrice Evra because of a thigh strain, but Ferguson was able to wheel out the big guns once more after resting many of his front-line stars in the Champions League semi-final victory against Schalke.
Ancelotti, as expected, opted for Didier Drogba ahead of Fernando Torres in attack as Chelsea attempted to fashion the victory that would have seen them leapfrog United at the top of the table.
The first meaningful blow was always going to be of huge importance, even more so when United were able to deliver it inside the first minute to give Ferguson the dream start.
Ryan Giggs fed Park and the Korean's pass cut out Luiz enabling Hernandez to demonstrate the composure and cutting edge that have become his hallmark in an outstanding first season. The Mexican raced clear and slipped a cool finish past Chelsea keeper Petr Cech for his 20th goal of the campaign.
Chelsea were in serious danger of being overrun in the one-sided opening exchanges, with Rooney bringing a flying save from Cech and also shooting narrowly wide as United laid siege to the goal.
One point still needed - Phelan
Hernandez was inches away from connecting for his second while the industrious Park also tested the overworked Cech at his near post with an angled effort with Chelsea unable to impose any sort of influence on proceedings.
United's supremacy deserved further reward and it duly came after 23 minutes when Giggs evaded Salomon Kalou after working a short corner and the towering figure of Vidic threw himself forward eight yards out to head past Cech.
Vidic's goal came just as Chelsea were settling, but their attempts to work their way back into contention were thwarted by United keeper Edwin van der Sar, who saved twice from Kalou and also from Drogba.
Tensions and emotions were running high, which was only to expected given the prize at stake, and Rooney was heavily involved. Branislav Ivanovic was booked for a foul on the striker, who then picked up a yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Luiz.
Ivanovic was relieved to go unpunished by referee Webb following another clash which left Rooney writhing in agony. Chelsea's fans clearly felt he was making the most of the incident in an attempt to get Ivanovic sent off and Rooney gestured angrily in their direction as he tried to complete his recovery.
Luiz had suffered a nightmare first-half and paid the price when he was replaced by Alex at the interval, with Ramires also coming on for John Obi Mikel.
United had vehement appeals for a penalty waved away by Webb after 52 minutes when Lampard handled Antonio Valencia's cross and with no sign of a shift in momentum Ancelotti gave Torres the last 25 minutes at the expense of Kalou.
He was not involved as Chelsea gave themselves a lifeline two minutes later, Lampard scrambling home from close range after Ivanovic knocked down Ramires' cross.
It then took a miraculous goal-line clearance from Alex to stop United restoring their two-goal lead almost immediately, throwing himself in front an open goal to stop Rooney turning in Hernandez's cross.
Rooney had presented a menacing figure throughout and as the game entered the final 10 minutes he again posed a threat to the visitors. He was driven away from danger by Cech as he burst into the area and then saw a shot deflected over the top.
Hernandez has proved the arch-predator for United this season, so it was a surprise to see him head Valencia's cross over the top from only six yards after Cech was left exposed by the quality of the cross and the wonderful natural movement of the striker.
The uncharacteristic miss did not prove expensive - and the joyous scenes that swept around Old Trafford at the end signalled that a record-breaking title is almost won.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.