Chelsea dig in to beat United and lift the FA Cup
Eden Hazard calmly placed the ball past David de Gea from the penalty spot to give Chelsea the only goal of a very close and tense Cup FA Cup final. The London Club were by far the better team in the first half but faded in the second as Manchester United saw more of the ball and created the better chances. Chelsea defended expertly and did enough to see the game through and lift the cup for the eighth time, in what could well be Antonio Conte’s final bow at the club.
Chelsea looked menacing on the counter attack throughout the first half and though they didn’t create a shed full of chances, they looked the more likely to break the deadlock. So it was, just after twenty minutes when Cesc Fabregas played a trademark ball forward towards Eden Hazard, who took advantage of a very poor starting position from Phil Jones, to break away clean through on goal. The Belgian was brought down by Jones just as he was about to pull the trigger and Michael Oliver had no choice but to point to the spot.
It was last ditch, lunging defending from the England International who had been badly caught out by Fabregas’s ball. Mourinho will be disappointed with the error, but was lucky his side were still left with eleven on the pitch, the double jeopardy rules coming to their rescue.
Lack of tempo hurt United
The first half was surprisingly hassle free for Chelsea. Hazard was able to dictate play whilst Giroud showed again just what a decent signing he has been, as he moved with purpose and intelligence, ruffling United’s back four.
For United their midfield three of Pogba, Herrera and Matic couldn’t influence the game at all as they were left sitting far too deep. Their entire eleven were sloppy in possession and lacked any penetration. Rashford was over applying himself and rushing, blunting his usual trickery and direct running, whilst Sanchez cut a frustrated figure, starved of service. The performance fizzled out as the referee below for half time without Manchester United really laying a glove on Chelsea.
Mourinho must have galvanized his troops at half time, as they came out fighting in the second half and had the better of proceeding for the remainder of the game. The fullbacks pushed up with more purpose and Rashford became more effective leading the line as he drew a stinging effort at Courtious early on. The game became cagey, with Chelsea having to do a lot of defensive work and United pilling on the pressure as Conte roared for his men to focus and weather the storm.
Chelsea’s rearguard sees them home, United lack star quality
As United pressed for an equalizer, Chelsea’s back three became more overworked and it was a surprise to see Willian not brought on sooner to try and give them more forward thrust. Rudiger and Kante however stepped up to the occasion and snuffled out most of United’s attacks before the danger became too overt.
Sanchez did have the ball in the back of the net, rebounding from an expertly parried shot by Courtious, this time though VAR was not needed at it was clear the Chilean had strayed offside, albeit marginally. Paul Pogba continued to frustrate the travelling United fans and he was certainly guilty of squandering his sides best chance as he somehow headed wide from nine yards out, glancing the ball when power was needed.
When all said and done though there simply wasn’t enough threat offered from Mourinho’s men to break the deadlock, the football appeared more laboured and contrived then fluid. Lukaku was brought on with twenty minutes to play but with Chelsea’s defense in the mood, you never really felt that even his presence would make the difference.
There is individual talent in the United ranks and they are a very organised unit, marshaled by the underrated Chris Smalling, but even as a neutral you can’t help but feel the team is playing without that extra gear. Their star players let them down today, missing passes and failing to apply the final in the last third. Hazard’s performance on the other hand, was exemplary as he took on the United back four whenever he got the ball, often pushing them back to their six yard line and causing chaos at will.
There seemed a sense of finality on the pitch as the interviews rolled and the Chelsea players celebrated their win. Captain for the day Gary Cahill was very guarded when asked whether he wanted his manager to stay for next season by the BBC:
“We’re not in control of that as players and I’m sure the club and himself will make the best decision for him and his family.”
Hardly an affirmative response from the England defender and it is perhaps indicative the uncertainty that has surrounded Conte’s future for the past few months. The Italian himself said he would respect the decision of the club as he celebrated his cup win at his second attempt. Whatever happens, the Italian has delivered a league win and FA Cup in his two years at Stamford Bridge, if he leaves this summer, then he will not be short of good offers. Ominously for Conte, the FA Cup no longer seems to be enough if you are not in the Champions League.