Over the past three seasons, I think we’ve gotten used to seeing games against Manchester Utd where we come out slowly, nine times out of ten concede the first goal, before managing to wrestle back some pride and occasionally a result in the latter stages. Yesterday was almost a parody of that scenario. For the opening 45 minutes we were hopeless. Completely without shape or ideas or structure at the back – it was like United had 20 men on the pitch. And at a ground as big as Old Trafford – if after 45 minutes players like Oscar and Mata have found virtually no space for themselves at all, reasons to be optimistic for the 2nd amount to approximately zero.
For the rest of the game however, Chelsea were just relentless; it was like we were playing down a hill of considerable steepness. I put in the preview for this tie that forcing a replay would be a decent result given the current situation. To be feeling so disappointed we didn’t win in the end is in some ways, I suppose, quite a nice feeling. I think that 45 minute period, regardless of whether or not we win the replay, has the potential to be a turning point in the season. Particularly for the younger players, it was perhaps the first real sense they would’ve had of what this Chelsea team are about.
After criticising Benitez for the loss to Manchester City, it’d be wrong not to acknowledge the difference he made in this fixture. His substitutions were spot on and appropriately timed and whatever he said at half time obviously made a difference. The most important change without question for me was bringing on Mikel for Lampard, who apart from two particularly average attempts on goal in the first half, was doing nothing to positively affect his team. He was as invisible as he was at the Etihad two weeks ago. Mikel on the other hand was immaculate. Winning the ball time and time again, keeping it easily under pressure and instinctively drawing players, helping the ball to move around in midfield so much more fluently. Mikel and Ramires has to be our first choice midfield pairing for big matches from now on.
After all the abuse and mocking suggestions that we’d “overpaid” from Utd fans when Eden Hazard opted to sign for us over them, his finish yesterday was especially satisfying. Rafael didn’t have a clue what to do as the Belgian came in from the right flank, not forcing him on to either foot in the end before he guided it over De Gea with the greatest of ease. I think this was the first point in the game that any player on the pitch had showed what he was actually capable of. Then the equaliser when it came was probably even better. Arguably the greatest team goal we’ve scored all season. Every pass in the build up was perfect until Ramires placed it in the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Was anyone else getting deja vu as this point? – Two early Utd goals, a wonder strike and then a Ramires leveller? Thankfully this time there were no senseless red cards or offside goals to ruin a great game.
There should of course have been a red card however. Late in the game the camera caught Rio Ferdinand kicking out at Fernando Torres’ heel and then pulling him back up to his feet. Quite how this was missed by the officials is a mystery. I’m sure no one needs any help imagining what the back pages would be like today had it been John Terry kicking out at Wayne Rooney instead. It’d be a horrific display of double standards if Ferdinand were to escape this without punishment.
The FA currently doesn’t know when the replay is to be scheduled for. If we manage to defeat Steaua Bucharest on Thursday then we may well end up having to play four games in nine days at some point, i.e. Saturday, Monday, Thursday, Sunday. Needless to say this is going to put us at a slight disadvantage given Utd are no longer in Europe. The easiest possible Europa League quarter final draw might be our only realistic chance of progressing, assuming the FA Cup remains bottom on our list of priorities.
Whether or not it should be is up for debate. If we can defeat Utd at the Bridge, then with respect to Wigan, Blackburn and Milwall, we’ll go through to play Manchester City at Wembley in a game few would disagree is as good as the final. Even without Drogba to score his mandatory Cup Final goals, you wouldn’t give any of the teams on the other side of the draw much chance given our recent dominance of this competition. The draw on Friday will give us a clearer idea but the FA Cup may have just become our best chance of winning a trophy.
The Europa League would be nice. In five years time however, 5 Cup wins in 7 years I think would be an achievement to look back on with slightly more pride.
By the way, odds on Marouane Fellaini to Chelsea were cut from 2/1 to 6/5 last night after the Belgian’s less than enthusiastic performance for Everton in their loss to Wigan on Saturday. Fans were on his back after he refused to chase down a ball he lost in the second half. With no hope of going to Wembley and a Champions League spot beyond any reasonable expectation, it would appear his only real interest now is a move away from Goodison this sumer, and the bookies seem to think West London is where he has in mind. I hope they’re right.