Manchester 2 Chelsea 2
Rafa Benitez has long since lost the war to win over Chelsea supporters but the double substitution that brought his club such an unlikely FA Cup quarter-final draw at Old Trafford last night showed the Spaniard at his very best.
The tie also confirmed what had long been common knowledge, the enmity between Benitez and his opposite number Alex Ferguson manifested when the United manager refused to shake the Chelsea man’s hand before kick-off.
“I was waiting at the beginning,” said Benitez, explaining what had happened before the game. “I was ready and waiting and he just walked past.
“I have education and I know all the people are watching, I know what I have to do. You will have to ask him why he did not do it.”
Trailing to early goals from Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney, Benitez’s problems looked like extending far beyond a snubbed handshake and Chelsea appeared destined for another night of abject disappointment in a season that is providing them with many.
But Benitez brought on Edin Hazard and John Obi Mikel as replacements for Victor Moses and Frank Lampard after 52 minutes — the latter decision earning him more abuse from the visiting fans — and Chelsea did everything but win the tie in an astonishing turnaround.
Hazard and Ramires scored the goals that earned a replay and only a magnificent stop from David de Gea denied the excellent Juan Mata in the dying seconds and prevented Chelsea from claiming a victory few neutrals would have begrudged.
“I think United are lucky to still be in the cup,” agreed Benitez. “Mata said it was an unbelievable save, very, very close.”
Of course, Benitez’s many detractors will claim that, rather than an inspired tactical shift, the fact Chelsea were so abject in the opening 45 minutes demonstrated how wrong the manager had his original selection.
It certainly appeared that way in the first 10 minutes as Petr Cech, David Luiz and Gary Cahill all conspired to hand United a two-goal lead that looked more than enough to book a semi-final meeting with Manchester City.
Five minutes had elapsed when Michael Carrick punted forward a beautifully flighted pass which Cahill misjudged and allowed Hernandez to meet with a towering, looping header. Still, the attempt should have provided Cech with a routine save had he not inexplicably elected to meander off his line, precisely the wrong place at the wrong time, as the ball flew over him into the net.
After the disappointments of Tuesday’s Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid, it was just the start United needed and one which was to become even better after 10 minutes.
Victor Moses fouled Nani 25 yards from goal and Rooney curled in a dangerous free-kick towards the far post for which Jonny Evans, Demba Ba and Luiz all competed. Somehow, all three missed making contact with the ball as, more tellingly, did Cech who simply watched as the ball curled in.
Chelsea were in tatters, their exit a formality, surely?
Rooney was denied by Cech as he swept a 12-yard shot goalwards and Luiz’s bizarre header from the rebound forced his keeper into a fine save, and there were shots for Tom Cleverley and Rooney, again, which tested the Chelsea number one.
But the second half was a completely different matter, a fact Ferguson put down to United’s physical and mental fatigue following the disappointment against Real, a claim that received an unsympathetic hearing from Benitez.
“They played on Tuesday, we played in Romania on Thursday,” said Benitez, whose side lost 1-0 at Steaua Bucharest. “They had everything in their favour, playing at home on Tuesday, we were travelling. I knew we had players a little bit tired from travelling and I had to manage them. I had to pick a starting 11 with fresh legs.”
Having made his decision to start without Hazard or Mikel, Benitez rectified matters early in the second half and Chelsea took increasing control of the game, David de Gea nervously scooping away a Luiz shot after 58 minutes.
Within seconds, the excellent Mata found Hazard just inside the area and the Belgian curled a superb shot into the net. It took just nine minutes, and more Chelsea dominance, for the visitors to get the equaliser.
Ba burst forward and found Oscar who, in turn, selected a brilliant pass out to Ramires, the midfielder changing feet neatly in the area before planting his shot beyond the dive of de Gea into the bottom left-hand corner.
Chelsea were rampant, United deflated and incapable of a response. Before the end, Mata’s low shot was held by de Gea who then saved magnificently from the same Chelsea man.
Even in injury-time, there were more chances for the visitors as Oscar set up a shot which Fernando Torres placed too close to the goalkeeper and Hazard’s superb 94th minute effort brought another fine parry from de Gea.
“They were the far better team in the second half,” said Ferguson. “We could have been 4-0 up in the first 25 minutes but I detected signs of tiredness because of the way we were giving the ball away.
“When you see teams give the ball away like we were doing, then you have to understand what the problem is. The emotion and intensity of Tuesday night has taken its toll on a couple of the players, understandably and I have no problem with that part. They certainly did feel it in the second half.”
MAN UNITED (4-4-2): De Gea 7; Rafael 5, Ferdinand 7, Evans 6, Evra 5; Nani 8 (Valencia 45, 5), Carrick 7, Cleverley 5, Kagawa 6 (Welbeck 75, 6); Rooney 5, Hernandez 7 (Van Persie 62, 5).
Subs not used: Anderson, Vidic, Young, Amos.
CHELSEA (4-4-1-1): Cech 5; Azpilicueta 6, Cahill 5, Luiz 6, Cole 7; Moses 5 (Hazard 52, 8), Ramires 7, Lampard 5 (Mikel 52, 7), Oscar 7; Mata 9; Ba 6 (Torres 77, 5).
Subs not used: Ivanovic, Turnbull, Terry, Bertrand.
Referee: Howard Webb 7
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