Chelsea moved into the semifinals of the FA Cup with a 1-0 home victory over Manchester United in a bad-tempered match Monday. N’Golo Kante scored the only goal after 51 minutes with a shot from 20 yards, but the turning point in the match came after 35 minutes.
After a number of United players fouled Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, referee Michael Oliver called over United’s Phil Jones (who committed the latest foul) and United captain Chris Smalling to issue a warning. It was evident that the referee — and the winger — had had enough of the constant fouls.
From the free kick, United’s Ander Herrera, already on a yellow card, tripped Hazard. It was a breathtakingly stupid and obvious act. Oliver brandished a red card, and a shoving match erupted among the players.
Why United harboured a sense of injustice is anyone’s guess. It was clearly a bookable offence that forced the referee’s hand. The bad feeling would soon erupt again.
The melee on the sidelines had barely settled down when managers Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho squared up and had to be separated in the technical area. They were kept apart by their assistant coaches, and the fourth official was reduced to gesturing like a boxing referee keeping fighters at a distance. Oliver came over and issued a warning. The bad feeling between the men was evident.
Things calmed a little on the sidelines in the second half, but Chelsea slowly imposed themselves on the game. When Willian approached the left side of the area with United defenders closing, he looked infield and spotted Kante in space. Perhaps because of the Frenchman’s reputation as a defensive midfielder, the visiting side’s defenders were slow to close him down, and although the shot seemed to lack power, it crept into the corner of keeper David De Gea’s goal, sparking huge celebrations at Stamford Bridge.
United striker Marcus Rashford had a chance to level the tie after 59 minutes but was denied by keeper Thibaut Courtois’s legs. Rashford was an unexpected starter after appearing to be ruled out of the game through illness. Rashford worked hard but had few opportunities.
After that, United’s 10 men began to fade and the chances came for Chelsea. Hazard, Willian and Diego Costa had opportunities to double the score as Mourinho’s United men petered out tamely. Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas, on as a substitute, also had two late chances.
The exchanges continued in the technical area, especially after United’s Ashley Young was booked for a foul on Victor Moses. Mourinho kicked the stray ball in Conte’s direction and the Italian replied with a volley of abuse toward the Portuguese. The crowd howled at Mourinho.
Once the Special One was the king of Stamford Bridge. Now Conte has replaced him in Chelsea supporters’ affections. Their new hero is Conte.
No one in the Chelsea team has a bigger grievance against their former manager than Hazard. The 26-year-old could not wait to get started; he sprinted out for the warm-up like a man on a mission. After all, Mourinho was the manager who implied that the Belgium winger lacked heart. If there was ever a stage on which Hazard was determined to prove the Portuguese wrong, this was it.
Jones, on the right side of United’s three central defenders, was given the duty of closing down Hazard. It was a testing task, especially as United’s Antonio Valencia was eager to push forward at every opportunity.
It is difficult to pin down Hazard. The Belgian drifted into the inside right channel, turned Smalling with ease, and drove into the penalty area. His shot was turned just wide by De Gea, and from the subsequent corner the goalkeeper made an even more impressive save from Nemanja Matic.
Mourinho’s team tried to counter the threat with strong-arm tactics. Smalling whacked Hazard early, and Herrera cynically blocked off a Hazard run to earn a yellow card. On another mazy run that began deep in his own half and involved neat exchanges with Willian and Kante, Hazard was taken down from behind by Paul Pogba. The referee waved play on, but there seemed to be a cynical ploy in action to rotate the fouls on the Belgian.
Still, every time Hazard got on the ball, the United defence experienced a shiver of fear. Close to the half-hour mark, he nicked a loose ball and charged into the box. The shot was wayward, but fear was visible on Jones’ face whenever he backpedaled away from the rampant Chelsea winger.
After 34 minutes, United cracked. Jones fouled Hazard and Oliver decided enough was enough. The referee called over Jones and Smalling, the captain, and told them to stop the rough treatment. In context, what happened next was an act of madness.
Within seconds of the free kick and within 15 yards of the official, Herrera tripped Hazard. It was an obvious and deserved red card. United were down to 10 men, and although Hazard was not on the score sheet, he was the man responsible for Chelsea’s victory.
The Belgian proved Mourinho wrong. United could not foul him out of the game. He has the heart to match his talent.
Rashford was not expected to play because of illness, but United’s strike force — Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial injured — had an even sicklier appearance than the 19-year-old summoned to London to lead the line.
Rashford showed signs of fatigue in the early stages, closing down Marcos Alonso out wide and chasing a hopeless long ball from Pogba that the striker turned into a shooting chance for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian was often the closest support for Rashford, but the striker was forced to do most of the running while Mkhitaryan looked to pick up any scraps. It was punishing and thankless work, and Rashford frequently found himself in hopeful chases in wide areas.
On one such errand halfway through the first period, the striker sent a tired-looking cross into Courtois’ hands. Rashford’s gesture of frustration told the story.
After Herrera’s red card, Marouane Fellaini replaced Mkhitaryan, leaving Rashford even more isolated, but the striker’s one real chance came after 58 minutes when he turned Chelsea’s David Luiz on the halfway line and set off for goal. It looked certain that Rashford would score the equaliser, but Courtois blocked with his legs.
There were few other chances for United. Pogba shot wide late, but Mourinho’s diminished strike force caused Chelsea few alarms.
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