After the heartache and debate over Tuesday night’s clash with Real Madrid, and the resulting speculation regarding one, Wayne Rooney, Manchester United returned to Old Trafford, hoping for a response as they took on Chelsea in the quarter finals of the FA Cup.
With such a big game following the week’s disappointment, Sir Alex Ferguson hoped his side would pick themselves up and bring their confidence back with a solid performance against their rivals. WIth that in mind he started a strong side, albeit with a couple of changes from Tuesday. David De Gea started in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in front of him. Occupying the left and right sides were Rafael Da Silva and Patrice Evra. In midfield, the quartet was made up of Shinji Kagawa, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Nani. Up front stood Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez.
It was to be a match of two stories. The first, United’s superb start. The first half an hour saw the home side quickly take the game to the visitors, as they struggled to deal with the threats posed at the flanks and the threat posed by Hernandez up front. Indeed, within 5 minutes of the start, the hosts were a goal up. Michael Carrick collected the ball in midfield and directed a pin point pass towards the box, with Hernandez getting on the end of it at an acute angle to goal, looping his headed effort over a helpless Cech, with the ball nestling at the far side of the net. 1-0, the perfect start. In the next 5 minutes, United doubled their lead. Nani made a run down the left and was tripped up by Moses on the left corner of the box to give United a free kick in a dangerous position. Up stepped Wayne Rooney, looking to send a cross in. His curled effort beat all those who attempted to get on the end of it, bouncing it’s way past a diving Cech to give United a 2-0 lead.
From there, United looked comfortable. The occasional sloppy pass allowed Chelsea a chance to go at the hosts, but United had the better of the chances. It was nearly 3 when Evra played in a pass to the box which found Rooney, the striker forcing a save from Cech, who then saved again after David Luiz’s attempt at heading clear ended up being on target.
As the half progressed though, Chelsea came into the game more. Holding on to the ball more, and United appearing to step off a bit, the signs were there that the game was not yet over. The half progressed without David De Gea having much trouble though and as the clock ticked towards half time, it appeared as though the score would remain as such. As half time approached, Nani went down in the Chelsea area, appearing to be in trouble. Although unsure of the seriousness, it was decided that the best way to proceed would be to remove him from the game, as the Portuguese winger departed with Antonio Valencia taking his place, after a bright start to bounce back from Tuesday’s red card.
To finish the half, Wayne Rooney attempted to catch Cech off his line with an audacious chip, but it sailed harmlessly over the bar. 2-0 at half time.
The second half saw the game complete it’s change. Chelsea pressed United more, keeping the home side in their own half and maintaining greater possession. The attacks became more potent as United struggled to keep hold of the ball, cheaply giving it away and allowing the visitors to take advantage. Benitez was quick to make changes as Lampard and Moses made way for Mikel and Hazard. With just under an hour played, Chelsea found a way back into the game. Mata played a pass to Hazard out on the left, with the midfielder then curling a shot past David De Gea to make it 2-1.
With United on the back foot, Sir Alex sought to correct the situation, bringing off Hernandez for Van Persie, with the hope of adding some composure. As a result, Kagawa played centrally, pushing Rooney out wide. However, it was not enough to stop Chelsea striking again with under 25 minutes left to play, after Luiz intercepted and played to Ba, who played the ball out to Ramires, who curled in a low effort, with De Gea getting tips to it, but ultimately unable to do enough to keep it out to bring the game level at 2-2.
With 15 minutes remaining and Chelsea in control, Kagawa was brought off for Welbeck. This helped United’s situation, injecting more pace and an effective threat from the young striker. However, it was the visitors who looked the more likely to grab a winner and with injury time looming, Luiz showed strength and played a ball to Mata, getting a shot away from close range with his left, looking to curl it in, only for De Gea to react and stick a foot out to push a certain goal out for a corner. There was time for more scares inside Old Trafford, as Hazard fired a shot at goal deep in injury time, only for De Gea to parry it away. And so it finished 2-2, setting up an as yet unscheduled replay at Stamford Bridge.
Post-match, the draw revealed the winner of the tie would face Manchester City at Wembley, providing the remaining sides a great opportunity to reach the final.
With that in mind, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) A Champion’s League hangover?
After the bitter disappointment of Tuesday night, fans were hoping the side would regroup in time for the weekend and seek out a response for the FA Cup game against Chelsea, realising there was still plenty to play for this season, domestically. For the first half an hour it looked as though that was the case. United barely gave Chelsea room to breathe, causing all sorts of trouble on the attack, playing with pace and posing plenty of threat, with the likes of Nani and Evra causing problems out wide and Hernandez looking threatening. Indeed, United got off to the perfect start, Hernandez heading well from Carrick’s sublime pass and then Rooney, after a week in which his future was questioned, answering his critics with a well placed free kick that beat everyone.
However, as the game went on and as the second half started, Chelsea came into their own as United sat back. To the credit of the away side, they pressured United, playing with a greater sense of urgency, sensing blood. The substitutions made played to their favour and contributed to opening up the back line and providing them with opportunities to pull the game back. United, by contrast, with the withdrawal of Nani suddenly could not keep hold of the ball. They could not get out of their own half and gave the ball away cheaply. In fact, on the basis of the second half, United deserved to, and could have, lost in what was one of the poorer performances of the season. Some looked tired, such as Evra and Rafael as acknowledged by Sir Alex. Others simply did not get int the game. Of course, there were some good performances on the day, but were it not for the heroics of one David De Gea, United would have found themselves out of a second competition in a matter of days.
Perhaps the international break is well timed, allowing United to recover and move on from their bad week as they move towards the Reading fixture coming up.
2) Robin Van Persie on the bench…. he must be leaving
After the furore surrounding Sir Alex’s benching of Rooney for Tuesday’s game it was interesting to see the England striker start and see how he would respond to all the speculation. With Ferguson categorically denying that Rooney was to be sold this summer, fans looked to see what part he would play on Sunday afternoon. Of course, one is not to be so naive as to take Sir Alex’s word as final with regard to his future, perhaps the benching was a warning for the striker to step up his fitness and prove he is still the main man. It is obvious that the situation has changed since his attempts at a move that hurt fans a while ago, with the arrival of Van Persie over the summer, Rooney is not the one everyone looks to anymore.
With regards to the game, he did well when all was smooth sailing for the side. He was influential going forward and scored a wonderful free kick in answer to his critics. As the game went on, he like the other, went quiet and his frustrations would only continue as he was pushed out wide, with United struggling to get forward at all.
Van Persie was brought on in an attempt to hold up the ball more. It was certainly worthwhile leaving him on the bench. The Dutchman is likely in need of a rest given the number of games he has played this season and the upcoming international break could allow him to return refreshed for the remaining games of the season.
3) Antonio Valencia – bad form…. or just bad?
One of the stories of the season amongst United fans has been the continued absence in form of Valencia. Where at one point the winger looked destined for great things at the club with admirers all over, he has been a shadow of himself this season, appearing to lack confidence, crossing poorly and proving ineffective down the right winger. Sunday’s performance felt as, for the first time in my view, that his future may well be in doubt. Poor form is temporary, but a run as bad as this for as long as this is bound to be cause for concern. There have been the occasional glimmer of hope of the player Sir Alex signed but on Sunday, his Torres-esque downfall was more obvious than ever. TIme after time as the ball went down the right, he gave the ball away. Hesitant on the ball he was dispossessed easily, many of his passes going astray as Chelsea broke quickly off of his lack of sharpness.
It would be unfair to point out Valencia as the sole poor performer of the match. Many of the others simply were not up to task as the game progressed, but when Nani went off after a bright start, and Valencia came on, the game changed. Perhaps that it is coincidence, but the Ecuadorian’s showing was no help in trying to hold the lead.
4) David De Gea – the reason United are still in
As De Gea’s feet once again kept United in a match as they had done against Madrid, it was pleasing to hear the commentators, so quick to dismiss him previously, provide him with some praise for his heroics. There have been many occasions this season when the goalkeeper has kept United in games, and as the season has gone on he has been in the ascendancy, particularly as the back four have solidified. His unorthodox approach to saves has been highlighted recently and frankly, it works. If his feet are the quickest way to reach the ball and keep it out, then by all means he should use them. Not only that, he is likely to get a better contact with it in such situations, making rebounds less dangerous than they might otherwise be when he parries it. A performance worthy of praise, in what was a panicked second half.
5) Old Trafford – a stark contrast between Tuesday and Sunday
On a day such as Sunday, an FA Cup quarter final against one of the club’s biggest rivals in Chelsea, it was strange that Old Trafford seemed so lifeless. Even at 2-0 the crowd struggled to find their voice in what may have been a lingering discontent over Tuesday’s exit. At 2-2, with the game hanging in the balance, some made their way towards the exits. It was a shame that with the team struggling against a resurgent Chelsea side, that the crowd were struggling with them.
Finally, some points regarding fatigue. Given Sir Alex’s statement that rotation would be key and all members of the squad would have to play their part in United’s efforts for silverware, that he chose to use players that he admitted were tired during Sunday’s game. Evra and Rafael did not appear fresh and Cleverley ran out of steam within an hour. There were options available as well. Ashley Young could have been used, as could Anderson and even Buttner. If United are to remain energetic as the season reaches it’s end, then using the full resources is a must. The whole squad will need to make a contribution.