* That was more enjoyable than watching a large man eat a pie for a bet. For all the talk of the magic of the FA Cup having been sapped away over the years, a Monday evening fixture between two Premier League sides at Stamford Bridge reminded us of the charm of this competition. Those who still believe that the top-flight’s elite no longer care about the world’s oldest knock-out competition need only review a quarter-final full of wonderful individual play, engaging one-on-one battles, and two teams desperate to land a punch – mostly metaphorical, but almost physical at times – on a bitter rival. And there were no non-league reserve goalkeepers in sight.
* Manchester United fans must have wondered what they done to be subjected to such abuse. Sunday evening brought reports that the club’s four first-team strikers were unavailable. By Monday morning, the realisation hit that either Marouane Fellaini or Ashley Young would have to fill the role.
Marcus Rashford’s miraculous recovery from illness spared the visiting fans what would have been a delightful spectacle of elbows and afros against the Premier League’s most miserly defence. But the most intriguing facet of Mourinho’s Manchester United set-up was the formation. The visitors started with something resembling a 4-4-2, but which became more of a 6-2-2 in practice. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young would flank a defence of Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian when Chelsea were in possession. So most of the time.
Jose Mourinho doth protest that his most recent visit to Stamford Bridge had not played on his mind, but this United side was designed to avoid defeat first and ask more attacking questions later. Considering he accused Antonio Conte of employing a more defensive style at Chelsea this season, it was a wonder we didn’t all expect him to do the precise same thing here.
* On the eve of the game, Conte reiterated his view that United boast the best squad in the Premier League, alongside Manchester City. Then the Italian named a bench featuring more than £100m worth of talent and we all guffawed.
The most unfortunate of the septuplet to miss out was Pedro, the Spaniard having scored three goals and provided two assists in his last four games. Conte’s thought process behind his omission was clear, with Willian being drafted in to provide a slightly more dynamic threat going forward, as well as more cover for Victor Moses in defence.
That the Brazilian was one of the Blues’ better performers merely exemplified one of the most impressive factors behind Conte’s management: he has built a machine with interchangeable parts. Willian can come in for Pedro. Fabregas can come in for Matic. Zouma can come in for Azpilicueta, who can in turn replace either Moses or Alonso. No matter how many changes are made, the team performance rarely suffers. The system is king.
* One of the victims of such a strong bench was a man who is quickly becoming forgotten outside certain circles. Since returning from his loan at Bournemouth, Nathan Ake has been available for 11 Chelsea games; he has played just two, and not even made the bench for seven of those fixtures.
The 22-year-old will surely be able to console himself as part of a Premier League title-winning squad, while an FA Cup trophy could also be celebrated come May, but it is a shame to see his talents go to waste. The Dutchman was playing regularly for the Cherries, but has yet to be truly afforded his chance under Conte. Hopefully that will come next season if not this, because he has earned his opportunity.
* As it happened, United started the better of the two sides, with Valencia particularly impressive. The game plan was clear and simple: to press high and fast.
It unsettled Chelsea at times. Gary Cahill in particular looked shaky in possession, while even N’Golo Kante misplaced a number of passes. For the opening 15 minutes, United had the upper hand.
One lapse of concentration from Smalling handed Chelsea the impetus to push on. The England international burst forward in pursuit of Eden Hazard, who had dropped deep to receive possession. In an instant, the Belgian swivelled, leaving Smalling on the turf, with David de Gea producing a wonderful save to keep the score level.
In a finely poised game of chess, Smalling resembled a pawn taking matters into his own hands and checkmating himself while trying to attack the queen. It was the sort of poor choice which illustrated why he should no longer be a regular starter, never mind the captain in a cup quarter-final.
* De Gea’s save from Hazard was excellent, the Belgian’s strike heading into the bottom corner due to a deflection off Darmian. It took less than a minute for the United keeper to make his previous effort look routine.
The subsequent Chelsea corner eventually fell to Cahill, who lashed a strike towards the corner. Stamford Bridge rose in anticipation, hoping to celebrate the opening goal, but De Gea was somehow equal to it. The Spaniard had leapt to his right, clawing the shot out and away from danger.
The 26-year-old has played something of a bit-part role in United’s season so far, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic dominating and the club no longer calling upon their keeper to rescue them. But in the space of single minute, the 26-year-old reminded us of his status as one of the world’s greatest shot-stoppers.
* After half an hour, Michael Oliver had seen enough. The past few weeks have been dominated by refereeing controversies, be they in the Nou Camp or at the Liberty Stadium, and the 32-year-old ensured that he would be included in Mourinho’s post-match press conference by committing the most cardinal of sins: attempting to keep control of the game.
United quite clearly targeted Hazard in the first half, presumably as part of Mourinho’s attempt to exact revenge on the Belgian. Jones had just committed his third foul on the forward when Oliver held counsel with Smalling. The referee issued a warning to the captain: the next player to foul Hazard would be booked.
It took all of 30 seconds for that deterrent to be ignored. Ander Herrera went in search of the ball, Hazard went tumbling over, and Herrera was sent off for a second yellow card.
If I recall refs are advised that where a specific player is being repeatedly fouled, it doesn't matter if a player only fouls them once.
— Dave Phillips (@lovefutebol) March 13, 2017
Martin Keown expressed “sympathy” for Herrera, Phil Neville complained that the tackle did not warrant a yellow card, numerous fans aired their complaints, and Mourinho had another ready-made excuse. But Oliver’s only crime was to punish what he deemed as systematic fouling on a single player. He issued a warning, Herrera failed to heed it (or Smalling failed to inform his teammates), and Oliver was forced to act.
It is at this stage that I am contractually obliged to write that Hazard ‘bought’ the foul, but Herrera was a willing customer. He was naive and stupid to even provide the Chelsea forward the opportunity to dive. It was not a bookable offence in isolation, but Oliver had to judge the moment in real time. It was an understandable decision.
As a side note, Oliver’s punishment did actually work: that was the fourth time Hazard had been fouled in the space of 35 minutes. He was fouled only twice thereafter.
* After a brief moment of reverting to type and chastising the referee, Mourinho enjoyed a moment of clarity. Stamford Bridge had awoken, the two sets of players and fans clashing at their respective senses of injustice. But the United manager had one thought on his mind: Where is Marouane Fellaini?
Mourinho laughed at the decision to send Herrera off, but it was difficult not to chuckle as the Portuguese asked Fellaini to shed his tracksuit and take to the field. The United manager will likely attest otherwise, but he clearly had in his mind a scenario where his side were reduced to ten men, such was the swift and decisive nature of the substitution. Perhaps he expected that his ingenious tactic of targeting one individual could backfire. Poor Henrikh Mkhitaryan was his sacrificial lamb.
* United managed to maintain parity heading into half-time despite their one-man disadvantage, but it took just six second-half minutes for Chelsea to find the breakthrough.
The visitors have no-one to blame but themselves for Kante’s strike. Herrera’s sending off completely negated their attacking intentions, and so they decided to sit deep as Chelsea dominated possession.
Conte’s side tried to play through the defensive wall at first, Azpilicueta starting a move on 50 minutes by finding Kante in the area with an incisive pass. Diego Costa then received the ball, but he was crowded out by defenders.
He deserves as much credit for the goal as anyone, keeping the move alive. As United shut the door, Costa crept the ball through the gap to the queue of players waiting on the edge of the area. It eventually found its way to Kante, who took Pogba’s lack of pressing as an invitation to shoot from range. It typified the French pair’s respective games: Kante was the Action Man, Pogba the Inaction Man.
* With Ibrahimovic suspended, this was billed as Rashford’s audition for a role as Manchester United’s future starting striker. But this was as much a test of the 19-year-old’s credentials as it was a screening for Pogba as the club’s next leader.
The Frenchman’s £89million valuation brought with it a list of requirements. He was expected to score goals and provide assists, to tackle, to pass, to defend and attack as the complete box-to-box midfielder.
But his main necessity, the one condition he had to consistently meet to warrant his fee, was to dominate such crucial fixtures. He did not choose the best evening to be completely overshadowed by N’Golo Kante.
Pogba had one shot, made two tackles, one interception, and completed just 27 passes. He made three unsuccessful touches, and was dispossessed eight times – more than any other player. Kante had two shots, scored one goal, made four tackles, created four goalscoring opportunities, and completed 70 passes. United pushed Chelsea as far as they could, but the midfield battle was an absolute no contest from the start.
— The United Stand (@UnitedStandMUFC) March 11, 2017
At what stage do you drop the world’s most expensive player? Mourinho can no longer skirt around the question, because Pogba’s performances are now directly inhibiting United. In his last 15 games for the club, he has as many bookings as he does combined goals and assists (2).
The 23-year-old never looked like asserting himself on the game, yet Mourinho never looked as though he would replace him. Pogba has now started 38 games this season, having not enjoyed a pre-season. He has been substituted off in just one of those matches. He is going through a run of bad form like any footballer, but his manager is not helping his cause by continually playing him.
* Asking Rashford to test the Premier League’s most miserly defence as a lone striker felt almost like an act of discipline from Mourinho. The manager explained that it was the 19-year-old’s decision however, having recovered from illness and travelled to the game alone. He was “putting himself on the line”, in his manager’s words.
On this basis, Rashford will be called back again for more trials. He pressed from the front, forced mistakes from both Cahill and Luiz, and completed as many dribbles as the rest of his teammates combined (3).
Indeed, the 19-year-old did pretty much everything expected of an away striker at Stamford Bridge but score. And he had what Mourinho described as “the best chance of the game” just before the hour mark when, having evaded Luiz’s attentions, he sprinted at the backtracking Cahill. Chelsea’s captain looked like a deer in the headlights, Rashford the predator, but the killer instinct was lacking in the finish. Thibaut Courtois did well to keep the strike out, but Rashford will know that it was a chance he should have scored. It was a blemish on an otherwise promising display, a learning curve to say the least.
* Rashford toiled at one end, but the struggles of Costa at the other should serve as a reminder that this was not a game for attackers to shine. The Spaniard engaged in a rather entertaining tussle with Rojo throughout and, to the surprise of many, it was the Manchester United defender who was the comprehensive victor.
This was Costa at his villainous best, the striker fuelled by a Stamford Bridge crowd adoring his theatrics. But Rojo was unmoved, shutting him down at every opportunity. The Argentinean made six tackles and six interceptions, as well as blocking three shots – each the most of any player.
He capped a fine performance with a perfect sliding tackle on Costa just after the hour mark. The striker tumbled to the ground, begging for a penalty, while Rojo simply recycled possession and kept his composure. Somehow, he is now United’s best central defender, and by a decent margin.
* Conte insisted that Hazard “couldn’t play” after being targeted by United throughout the first half, but if that was the Belgian when he is restricted, it must be a quite scary prospect to see him at full flight.
He completed seven dribbles – at least three more than any other player. He was fouled more often than any other player (6). He registered the highest passing accuracy, a ludicrous 98.6%.
— Nizaar Kinsella (@NizaarKinsella) March 13, 2017
Kante scored the winning goal, but it was telling that Hazard was the one individual who both sides centred their tactics around. Chelsea played through him as they so often do, while United simply tried to go through him. They failed.
* A word too for Willian, whose flicks and livewire movement opened up the game for Hazard. On one of Costa’s rare days off, the winger was the Robin to Stamford Bridge’s Batman.
The Brazilian has endured perhaps the most difficult campaign of any Chelsea player. He was their only consistent performer in an otherwise failed season last year, but while the team has improved markedly, his role has been slightly more peripheral. As he always does when given the chance, he reminded Conte of his worth with a dedicated showing.
The manager has done well to keep both Willian and Pedro happy this season, despite neither being regular starters. Of course, that task is rather more difficult for a boss when you aren’t winning.
* They had one first-team striker whose availability was in doubt on the morning of the game. They have a Europa League second leg to play in midweek. They had a four-day rest, while Chelsea enjoyed a whole week of preparation. Their dressing room was slightly below room temperature.
Mourinho hardly needed any more excuses, but Herrera’s red provides more fuel to his fire of injustice. United were not beaten by Chelsea, they were defeated by a combination of fate, circumstance and the officials.
Their performance does exemplify the improvements made under Mourinho since their 4-0 drubbing in October. This was more of a contest; United put up an actual fight. But Chelsea were far superior, and even taking Rashford’s chance into account, deserved their victory.
Winning a trophy of any kind is an achievement, and the EFL Cup was supposed to herald a new dawn at Old Trafford. It was the springboard to further success on four fronts. In reality, it was their last win.
Who expected the Europa League to be United’s priority by mid-March?
* With a ten-point gap at the top of the Premier League and 11 games left to play, a second title in three years is en route to Stamford Bridge. Conte’s side are now two games away from securing the first league and FA Cup double of any English side since the Blues won both back in 2010. And yet Chelsea’s 2017 edition is not spoken of nearly as highly as any of the top-flight’s greatest teams over the past two decades.
If Wembley glory is delivered against first Tottenham then either of Arsenal or Manchester City, then this must surely be recognised as one of the most rounded, accomplished teams to grace the Premier League. From the manager down to the fringe players, Chelsea’s greatest strength is that there is no real weakness.