Chelsea’s grip on the FA Cup remains intact, after a rousing response to early adversity.
In echoes of the League game at Stamford Bridge in October, the Blues were 2-0 down inside 11 minutes, as Utd started like a train. By the end of the game, they were holding on for the draw, as Chelsea produced our best 45 minutes of football since the home League game against Arsenal.
Hernandez loves playing against Chelsea and usually scores. On 5 minutes, a Carrick chip forward was made to look much better than it actually was as Cahill allowed Hernandez to run off his shoulder.
Cech, inexplicably got caught 10 yards off his line, nowhere near the ball. A looping header to the far corner left the 2 of them to scratch their collective heads before the restart.
Brave though Cahill is at times, he must work on his positional sense and distribution, which for an England Centre Half, are both sub-standard. Pace alone, particularly against a striker like Hernandez, will not always save him.
On 11 minutes, from a Chelsea corner, a Utd counter, led by Nani was brought to an abrupt end by Moses.
Rooney’s Free Kick, delivered from just outside the left apex of the penalty area was whipped in. Luiz looked to get a good leap but as he attempted to head the ball away, a combination of Jonny Evans strength and Luiz closing his eyes saw him miss the ball, which cleared everyone, bounced in front of Cech and nestled in the far corner.
Cech had waited for someone to get a touch that never came and once the ball cleared Luiz, had no chance of keeping it out. The Blues had a mountain to climb, with 7/8 of the game remaining.
The Cahill/Luiz Centre Back pairing is not my favourite. Ivanovic’s form of late has been poor and Terry’s post injury “programme” it seems does not allow him to play 2 games a week but both would have expected to deal better with the 2 goals than the incumbents of the day.
The remainder of the first half saw the Blues have plenty of the ball but lack the final ball to turn possession into goal scoring opportunities. Towards the end of the first half, we had 6 consecutive attacking phases without testing De Gea but at least we were hemming United in and winning 2nd balls.
Ashley Cole had several chances to deliver balls in to the box with quality but failed to do so.
Frank Lampard’s recent lull in form, coinciding with the goals drying up, continued as he struggled to maintain possession and looked leggy tracking back. It appears his post injury exertions in January and February, when due to lack of squad depth, he was playing every 3 days may have taken its toll.
His best chance of reaching the 200 goal milestone came on 18 minutes. Mata picked up the ball and ran at United in the inside right channel before playing the ball to Lampard on the edge of the area. His shot was not cleanly struck and De Gea made a comfortable save.
Demba Ba also had a quiet game. Too often his first touch was too heavy and possession was conceded. Apart from a couple of speculative efforts from distance that caused De Gea no concern, he was limited to shots blocked when a pass was the better option.
United’s early zip dissipated as they gifted possession to the Blues repeatedly and left ever increasing gaps in the middle of the pitch that Mata and Oscar began to drop into.
Cech’s early blushes were offset somewhat by a fantastic double save to prevent United putting the game to bed.
Rooney’s fierce hit was pushed out and Luiz’ attempted header behind looked to be dipping under the bar as Cech clawed it over to safety.
The Chelsea support was nothing short of magnificent, outsinging the home fans for large chunks of the game. Benitez inevitably caught some flak but the majority of the refrains were supporting the team, as he had implored us to after the win at Middlesborough.
Victor Moses had one of those days. His decision making was poor and he ran into too many cul-de-sacs. On 38 minutes a 1-2 with Mata, saw the Spaniard back heel the ball to him inside the area on the right hand side, only for Moses to thrash a left foot shot that almost went for a throw in.
Half Time saw Hazard and Mikel go through vigorous warm ups and within 7 minutes of the restart, both would be in action.
After a rare Ramires surge forward and shot at goal, albeit off target, Benitez made his move.
I have been very critical of Benitez’ unwillingness to make early substitutions to try and turn games around. Whilst these were (again) like for like changes positionally, (Mikel for Lampard, Hazard for Moses), both substitutes had a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
Chelsea immediately pressed much higher, with the back 4 pushing up to just short of halfway. The risk of conceded a killer 3rd goal was mitigated by gaining ever increasing amounts of possession as United began to struggle to get out of their half.
Luiz had a terrific 2nd half, several times stepping in to intercept balls bound for Hernandez or his replacement, Van Persie in the midfield third.
After a lengthy spell of possession, United finally got out of their half, only to concede possession. Mata, who was becoming more influential with every passing minute, made a forward run before rolling the ball to Hazard on the left apex of the box.
Rafael showed Hazard the inside, inviting the shot: big mistake. Hazard shifted the ball slightly to his right and curled it into the far corner. Having started the ball outside the post, all De Gea could do was watch and admire the purity of Hazard’s strike.
Rather than stunning them into action, United looked punch drunk. As stunning as Hazard’s goal, just 6 minutes after his arrival was, his fellow substitute, Mikel, was also influencing the game, albeit in a more subtle vein.
Mikel has no designs on making forward runs on anything but an occasional basis. By replacing Lampard, he unshackled Ramires whose energy and stamina make him one of the fittest players in the squad. He also has pace and when he runs at defenders, he is more than a handful.
After Luiz robbed Rooney just outside our penalty area and found Ba, Chelsea’s counter was quick and incisive. Ba’s diagonal pass to Oscar, was replicated to Ramires. He turned inside Evans on to his left foot and curled his shot into the bottom corner, with accuracy, rather than power, proving decisive.
The Blues were on top and although the pressing dropped back to the halfway line, looked the more likely to grab the decisive 3rd.
Second balls continued to be won. United looked like the side who had played on Thursday rather than Chelsea, as their collective legs began to tire.
Torres replaced Ba on 76 minutes. He gave the FA something to ponder after Ferdinand clipped his heels in an off the ball incident but apart from one weak shot from 20 yards, made little impact. Not that he needed to as Mata and Hazard were giving United plenty to think about.
Mata has been unfairly accused of not always turning up in the “big games”. He was Man of the Match here, assisted by the pockets of space, United obligingly left him between the lines.
On 83 minutes, he shot from 20 yards on his swinger but straight at De Gea.
As the London based United fans began to pour out of the ground in the last couple of minutes of normal time, (to Chelsea chants of “We’ll race you back to London”), Mata could and should have avoided the need for a replay.
Luiz chipped an exquisite pass to Mata, who pulled it down, turned inside Evans and shot. De Gea’s Right Boot deflected the ball out for a corner. It was credited as a good save but in truth, he knew little about it, due to his proximity to Mata.
In the dying seconds, Hazard’s drive was pushed out by De Gea and cleared for a corner but that was that and a replay will have to be shoehorned into Chelsea’s already crowded fixture list.
The 2 sides are evenly matched in terms of talent but United’s mental strength explains the chasm between the 2 sides in the Premier League table.
Before the game, on the 108th Anniversary of the formation of the club, expectations were low amongst even diehard Chelsea fans. I wanted our players to show pride, passion, commitment and to play for the badge. In fairness, despite giving United a 2 goal headstart, they didn’t disappoint. If only we’d started how we finished.
Bring on the boys from Bucharest.
Follow Chris Davies on Twitter: @chrisdaviescfc