LONDON // One great goal, one great save, and Chelsea built on their comeback at Old Trafford three weeks ago to reach the FA Cup semi-final for the sixth time in eight years. The quarter-final replay may not have been the greatest game but it produced two great moments that will live long on the collective memory of the competition.
Rafa Benitez insisted he didn’t have to justify the weakened team he had picked for the defeat at Southampton on Saturday – in fact he denied it was a weakened side – but there was a clear sense of a gamble that had paid off.
He was irritated by the negative reaction to that game. “Before the international break we played United, West Ham and Steaua Bucharest and we were the best in the world,” he said. “We lost to Southampton and we were the worst in the world. Now we are the best in the world.”
The first half had been a scratchy affair, United seemingly accepting Chelsea would dominate midfield and sitting deep, looking to hot on the break. That did yield one chance as Javier Hernandez gathered a long clearance from David De Gea and struck a shot that deceived Petr Cech, forcing him into an ungainly save with a raised right boot as he dived down the wrong line.
Chelsea probably felt they were in control, but the goal came out of nothing.
Mata, who flourished having initially seemed to be feeling the effects of the virus that had kept him out of Saturday’s defeat, lifted a ball straight into the box – the sort of slightly aimless pass that usually drifts straight through to the opposing keeper.
On this occasion, though, it was perfectly weighted and Ba, stretching out his right foot, managed to hook a shoulder-high volley into the top corner. Perhaps because of its venerability and love of its own tradition, the FA Cup has a habit of speaking in quotations: this was a goal very reminiscent of Mark Hughes’s volley for United against Oldham in the semi-final in 1994.
It was also Mata’s 50th assist for Chelsea in just his 105th game for the club. He has also scored thirty times for the club, which gives some indication of just how critical his form is to their fortunes. That he seemingly came through the game without any negative reaction was a major positive on a day on which Chelsea lost Ashley Cole to a hamstring injury.
He, like Gary Cahill, will be out for at least another fortnight.
Mata was not the stand-out performer on Monday, though; that was Cech who, with an hour played, made a save that defied belief. Danny Welbeck crossed and Hernandez, six yards out seemed sure to score. His header was firm, but Cech, thrusting out his left hand as he scuttled across goal to his right, managed to divert the ball just over the bar and onto the roof of the net.
Even Hernandez seemed overwhelmed by the brilliance of the save, getting to his feet with a broad grin on his face and congratulating the keeper.
In the past, that would usually have been the start of a United surge: of all their many qualities, resilience has always been the greatest. As against Real Madrid, though, they seemed to struggle to raise themselves. Fifteen points clear in the league they may be, and on course to set Premier League points records, but this is far from Sir Alex Ferguson’s best United. They did create two late chances, but Robin van Persie, who had come off the bench, fired both over.
So United’s season, weirdly, feels as though it is over: they will wrap up the title in a couple of weeks but after that have no more lands to conquer. Chelsea, meanwhile, for all Benitez’s insistence Champions League qualification is the priority, march on to Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final against Rubin Kazan and an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
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