Ramires Strike Gives Reds the Blues – United 2 Chelsea 2
What started as a dominant performance at the theatre of dreams soon turned into a nightmare as Chelsea tore up the script to force a sixth-round replay.
Two early goals stunned the visitors but United crumbled in the second half. Losing Nani to injury, getting outnumbered in the middle and failing to play defensive football cost the Red Devils smooth passage to the Semi-Finals.
While Chelsea fans won’t want to admit it, Rafa Benitez’ tactical substitutions set their second half comeback in motion. By adding more men to the midfield, the Blues were able to overload the home side with clever movement and swift passing.
Before then, they looked completely dazed by the pace of Javier Hernandez. The Mexican’s darting runs often forced David Luiz and Gary Cahill to track him, and in turn pull the midfield deeper to cover the space. This isolated Demba Ba, a striker who relies on good service to score so many goals.
Meanwhile, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand dominated the aerial battle in their own penalty area. David De Gea had very little to do with his centre-backs in such fine form. Even when he was caught out by a fierce cross from Victor Moses, Ferdinand managed to nod the ball clear with relative ease.
Michael Carrick played a perfect ball over the top for Hernandez to head past Petr Cech after five minutes. Then Wayne Rooney’s free-kick soared through the box, avoiding everyone including a hesitant Cech, into the net.
Despite being heavily outplayed, Cech stayed alert to stop the scoreline getting out of hand shortly after. He parried a Rooney shot from 10 yards out then got up magnificently to sweep David Luiz’ misdirected header over the crossbar.
United lost Nani on the stroke of half time. He was replaced by Antonio Valencia, who looks a shadow of the man that picked up two Player of the Year awards last season. Throughout the first half Nani was constantly holding a high line, pinning Ashley Cole to his duties as fullback. Valencia was a lot more cautious, allowing Cole to roam freely down the flank and stretch the home side’s midfield to breaking point.
When Benitez introduced Eden Hazard and John Obi Mikel to the game in the 52nd minute, that extra space in the middle fuelled a stunning recovery. Hazard took it upon himself to get the ball rolling, whipping the ball into the top corner. Rafael gave him too much room to manoeuvre and was punished when he couldn’t adjust his body to deal with the Belgian’s screamer.
In replacing Frank Lampard with Mikel, Benitez cleverly gave Chelsea a point to start each of their attacks. He gave them a base around which the others could pivot. And pivot they did.
Juan Mata, Oscar and Ramires began to exchange roles in ongoing attacks. Safe in the knowledge that Mikel was holding his ground, they played with more confidence and swamped the centre of the field. Mata was all alone as he charged down the middle several times, something he couldn’t do in the opening 45 minutes.
Wayne Rooney had burst into life shortly after kick-off but fell silent as the match wore on. His lack of motivation to defend left United exposed as Chelsea dictated the tempo of their attacks from back to front. Ferguson tucked Kagawa in the hole as Robin Van Persie entered the fray, moving Rooney to the left wing. Still United couldn’t get a foothold on possession.
When Oscar laid the ball through to Ramires shortly after, what followed was inevitable. The Brazilian cut inside, created a yard or two between himself and Evans, and curled the ball past De Gea. The Spanish goalkeeper was so close to saving it. He made up for it with a brilliant stop to deny Mata a late winner, flicking out his right foot to poke the ball wide.
United held on and will get the chance of a replay very soon, then the winner of this tie will play Manchester City in the Semi-Finals.
Overall, it was a strong first half display that quickly collapsed when United felt safe. Chelsea overloaded the midfield with bodies, then made smart substitutions to further solidify their system. This allowed them to overrun United by controlling the speed and shape of the match.
UTD RATINGS: DE GEA (7), RAFAEL (6), FERDINAND (5), EVANS (6), EVRA (5), NANI (7), CLEVERLEY (4), CARRICK (6), KAGAWA (6), ROONEY (5), HERNANDEZ (7)
SUBS: VALENCIA (3), VAN PERSIE (5), WELBECK (6)