Mourinho’s back at Stamford Bridge and the biggest question was not will his United side do better than their last visit, where they were battered 4-0, but “who will he play up top?” United have 4 first team strikers in their squad, yet when they stepped of the train at London Euston on Sunday none of them could be seen. It was known that Zlatan would not be in the squad, as he was suspended for his misdemeanour elbow on Tyrone Mings the week before, but where were Rooney, Martial and Rashford? It turned out that Rooney, for the second time recently, had received a knock off of Phil Jones and both Martial & Rashford had come down with an illness. Fortunately, Rashford made it through a late fitness test, after declaring himself fit to play.
Chelsea on the other hand had no injuries or suspensions, which isn’t a surprise as it has felt like they have managed to avoid injuries like no other side this season.
The attitude of some of the Chelsea players have drastically changed this season compared to last. Costa is scoring again and doesn’t seem to want to start a fight with everyone and everything, though Rojo managed to bring this back out of him in the game on Monday night. Hazard appears to be a world beater again after his ‘off’ season last year and with Conte in charge, they balance a strong defensive shape with the attacking pace of Willian and Hazard.
Anyway, in the build up, Mourinho made comments about Chelsea being defensive, but it was felt that it would be United who would park the bus, and when the sides were announced it looked like this could be the case. Jose, so far this season, has played Young, Valencia & Darmian as full backs and Jones, Smalling & Rojo as centre backs, so the fact he started with all 6 defenders probably was not a surprise. With Herrera, Pogba, Mikhi and Rashford making the rest of the starting 11, it wasn’t clear how United would line up. It turned out to be a flexible formation, which switched from a 4-1-4-1 to a 5-4-1, with Phil Jones moving from a holding midfielder to a centre back when needed. Chelsea named a side which contained no real surprises; going with their usual 3 at the back, with Moses and Alonso playing as wing backs. Kante and Matic played as holding midfields allowing Hazard, Willian and Costa to play up top.
The game kicked off and United started fast, faster than I’ve seen United start recently. They were straight in the faces of the Chelsea players, with Valencia winning the ball almost immediately from kick off. United pressed Chelsea and had a plan to man mark, but would allow Cahill to have the ball, which turned out to be a good idea as he gave the ball away a few times. United created the first chance of the game with a ball over the top from Pogba, chased by Rashford who couldn’t get past Azpilicueta, yet managed to knock the ball back to Mkhitaryan who fired just wide of the post. Up until this point, Chelsea appeared to not have been quite at the races. However, Hazard suddenly sparked them into life with a fantastic turn on Smalling, before beating two players and forcing a very good save from De Gea. Dave then made a second impressive save, as a corner came in Cahill managed to hold of Rojo and get a low shot from 8 yards out, which looked destined for the bottom corner until De Gea got down quickly and turned it away.
So, onto the turning point in the game… Ander Herrera has had a good season, but he does give away silly fouls. The first booking for the Spaniard was a definite booking. He knew what he was doing as he moved his body, slightly, into Hazard as he tried to get past. His second foul was also on Hazard, and also received a yellow card, this one was possibly soft compared to some of the other fouls which had happened so far in the game. The foul was silly, but it didn’t warrant a card when compared to other tackles, the one which sticks out is Darmian on Willian where he slid in from behind after chasing the Chelsea man across the pitch. The problem with Herrera’s second was that it came just after Smalling had been spoken to by referee Michael Oliver for the number of fouls by United players, and in particular, after Jones had just fouled Hazard seconds earlier. It’s fair to say the game had been one where there had been quite a few fouls, yet no other player received any cards in the first half except Herrera, which seemed to lack consistency. This sparked the hand bags in the touch line between the two manages with poor Mike Jones being the filling in the managerial shouting match on the touch line.
As Herrera was off for an early shower, Mourinho brought on Fellaini and you felt that United would need to park the bus and hope to catch Chelsea on the counter. It was apparent that this would be the case straight from kick off of the second half, as United lined up on the edge of their own area with Rashford as the only real outlet. This meant that Chelsea controlled the ball and started to try and pick passes around the United 18 yard line. Then came the moment which United were hoping to avoid, Chelsea moved the ball around and it came to Kante who is not known for his shooting, yet seems to enjoy scoring against United. The former Leicester star managed to fire a low shot past the fully stretched David De Gea and into the bottom corner. Chelsea then controlled the game, creating chances, though they didn’t really test the United keeper, as they fired wide or couldn’t get on to the end of any crosses. United did create one chance, Rashford managed to hold off Luiz and pick the ball up on the half way line, he then only had Cahill in his way, who didn’t know which way to turn. Rashford went one way and then another, before shooting, but it was saved by Courtois. As the game went on it was all Chelsea, but chances were few and far between with United left trying to pump the ball forward to Fellaini and Pogba, who tried to push on as the game entered its dying minutes. This did leave United open to a Chelsea counter, and they had one of note which saw Fabregas force a good save from De Gea.
So the game ended 1 – 0 to Chelsea, you cannot blame the United players as they worked their socks off. You can only applaud the effort put in by the likes of Valencia, Rashford and Rojo, who I feel all deserve a mention, as they ran themselves in to the ground and battled throughout the match. You do have to question the consistency of the referee as the sending off did change the game, and only Costa and Young received yellows after this. There were several other players who should have received cards, in particular Valencia for several fouls, including one where both feet left the ground. Rojo who was lucky not to receive a card for his tackles and duel with Costa and he could still receive a ban if it is deemed that he stamped on Hazard after fouling the Chelsea player, yet this depends on what the FA decides.
You do however have to question one player, Paul Pogba, I am not going to get drawn into the ‘is he worth £89 million?’ question, because I don’t think it matters if you are worth £10 or £100 million as you are expected to work as hard as you can to help support your team. I do think he has to start doing more. He cannot continue to waste chances, give the ball away and not be influencing games if he wants to play as a forward thinking centre midfielder. You only had to look at the likes of Kante, who is a different type of midfielder yet the effort he puts into getting around the pitch, his passing and of course his shooting (mainly against United), is everything which Pogba has not shown consistently in a game, let alone over the season. I do think he will come good, he just needs to focus more on playing football rather than appearing in music videos or working on new handshakes.
Anyways, United are out of the FA Cup. They now need to regroup and focus on trying to get through to the next round of the Europa League, as they host Rostov at Old Trafford in 3 days time. Chelsea have been drawn against Tottenham in the Semi Final of the FA Cup and will be hoping to beat their London rivals at Wembley in a months time to set up a final against either Arsenal or Manchester City.