|Photo by ibeeckmans on Flickr|
Chelsea rode a second half comeback to draw level with Manchester United in a tightly contested Sixth Round FA Cup match on Sunday, with the 2-2 result guaranteeing a return affair to be played in London at the Blues' home, Stamford Bridge. The game was a disappointing outcome for Sir Alex's men, especially as they were unlucky not to be three goals clear of the visitors at the break. Once again, Luis Nani was an absentee protagonist in the affair, but this time the Portuguese wide man was not dismissed from the action by a referee; rather, it was an injury picked up near the interval that necessitated the winger's departure. Replaced by an ineffective Antonio Valencia, the home side was no longer able to pin back Chelsea's attack, and their defense was overrun in the second half, in particular by substitute Eden Hazard, who entered the action after 50 minutes of play. In the subsequent 40 minutes that the Belgian was on the pitch, the visitors dominated the action, and their advancement into the next round of the Cup was denied only by the narrow sole of United 'keeper David De Gea's outstretched boot in the game's dying moments.
The home fans were undoubtedly surprised to see the match turn out the way it did, especially after the opening quarter hour. After back and forth opening gambits, it was an exquisite pass from Michael Carrick that completely gutted the visitors' defense, an arcing ball that split the Chelsea back line wide open, and it was none other than Javier Hernandez -- a Chelsea slayer if ever these was one -- who greeted the ball with a fine looping header over Petr Cech to give the Red Devils an early advantage. The goal appeared the perfect tonic for Tuesday's bitter loss to Real Madrid, the men in Red dismissing the Champions League game from their collective memories and proving to be focused on the task at hand.
Five minutes later and it was Wayne Rooney's turn to celebrate, the Englishman offering a perfect curler of a free kick, the ball heading across the face of goal untouched before settling into the far corner of the net and doubling the home side's lead. It was easily the sharpest 11 minutes in recent memory, and a benched John Terry could only sit and shrug his shoulders on the sideline, unaccustomed as he may have been to this area of Old Trafford.
When the situation was reversed at the 14 minute mark -- with Juan Mata looming over a dead ball -- Rio Ferdinand treated the crowd to a defending master class, and the two goal lead was preserved. The home side was playing outstanding defense once again, pressuring the ball and hunting in packs, and offering the Chelsea skill players precious little room in which to operate. It was only Cech's quick reflexes that denied Rooney his second goal of the afternoon, the home side smelling blood and scalping Chelsea on the flanks, with Rafael, Nani, and Patrice Evra giving Chelsea fits down the sidelines.
It was half an hour before Chelsea discovered anything resembling their groove, but once again it was Ferdinand and central defensive partner Jonny Evans patrolling the back line with efficiency and snuffing out the threat when it emerged. The Reds gradually drifted toward complacency as the half dragged on, though, and their mental mistakes and poor passing threatened to let Chelsea back into the contest. By the time the teams headed into the locker rooms there were sufficient talking points for both coaches to cover during the break, although Nani likely wouldn't have been paying as much attention as Antonio Valencia, the latter replacing the former just prior to the break.
The two sides were unchanged as they walked back onto the pitch, but they didn't stay that way for long. Less than six minutes in and Benitez pulled the trigger, sacrificing a quiet Frank Lampard and Victor Moses for Jon Obi Mikel and Eden Hazard. The alterations made a world of difference. What had previously been an attack that bore little fruit blossomed almost immediately: Eden Hazard making something out of nothing, and his curling ball beat De Gea and brought the game back to life near the hour mark.
Sir Alex sent a rested Robin Van Persie in to give the home side a needed spark, ending the Little Pea's afternoon and attempting to give the visitors something new to think about. The game had completely switched narratives since the interval, with the visiting side well on top and Hazard creating opportunities down the flanks. If the first goal came from the left, it was now the right side causing damage near 68 minutes, when Ramires deservedly leveled the score. The action was colored all Blue, with Chelsea retaining the ball despite the home side's best efforts to retrieve it. The home side's passivity was puzzling, and with 15 minutes to play the game was finely balanced as Danny Welbeck replaced Shinji Kagawa and Fernando Torres came in for Demba Ba.
Both sides created opportunities as the match neared its climax, but the passes were always just a bit off: a little behind, too far ahead, too fast, or just not hit hard enough. The home crowd was audibly anxious as Chelsea turned the screws in stoppage time, and it was only David De Gea's outstretched foot that kept his team in the Cup, as Juan Mata had the Reds dead to rights with the goal begging.
Sir Alex won't be happy with a replay, but based on the second half performance, there will be more than a few players in Red who will breathing a sigh of relief that their Cup run didn't end prematurely on Sunday.
This is farlieonfootie for March 11