Ba magic edges Chelsea past Man United

Posted by Phil Lythell

Demba Ba in action for Chelsea against Man UnitedGettyImagesDemba Ba in action for Chelsea against Man United

Chelsea's love affair with the FA Cup shows no sign of abating after they edged past Manchester United in their quarter-final replay to book a date with Manchester City in the last four.

The Blues will return to Wembley yet again to what has become their second home over the last seven seasons and their record there has been little short of perfect. Community Shield games aside, only Tottenham have managed to stop Chelsea on that hallowed piece of grass in north west London during that period though City will not be easy opponents. In addition, Chelsea will have to do it without the man who scored virtually every time they played there in Didier Drogba.

Having said that, Demba Ba put in a performance against the Red Devils that was reminiscent of his Ivorian predecessor in his pomp. Ba played the textbook centre forward role and gave the opposing central defenders a torrid time. His hold-up play was superb and it allowed the likes of Eden Hazard and Ramires to run beyond him and pull the back four out of position. Ba's touch was exquisite and he was able to lay the ball off intelligently and make defence splitting passes to his team mates to give Chelsea genuine forward momentum.

The Blues have attempted to switch from the direct tactics of yesteryear this season but sometimes the best option is to hit the centre forward and let him bring others into the game. Ba executed that element of the game-plan perfectly and it gave Chelsea the platform to weave clever attacks. And then there was his brilliantly taken winning goal, one which Drogba himself would have been immensely proud to have scored.

The match overall was a curious affair and very much fulfilled the cliche of it being "a game of two halves". The opening 45 minutes we're stilted and bitty with neither side really able to find any sort of rhythm in their play. Some of the passing, particularly by the home side, was desperately disappointing during the initial exchanges and several promising opportunities were frittered away by careless thinking. After the break, however, the 40,000 spectators at Stamford bridge were treated to a real cup tie, the kind which has made this competition so famous. There was more adventure, a few more risks and a far greater tempo to the match and thankfully it played to Chelsea's advantage.

Woken from their first half torpor, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata were once again the puppeteers behind the Blues positive contributions. The former was especially prominent through his injection of energy while Mata crafted and schemed around him. It was The Spaniard's inch-perfect chip which allowed Ba to open the scoring but judging by the amount of space that United afforded him, you can be sure Sir Alex Ferguson will be employing his hairdryer once more after the match.

If there was once criticism about either of their performances it was that they were unable to net a killer second goal. Hazard's opportunism saw him surge through the United defence but then screw his shot wide when he should have found the net. Mata also had a couple of sights of goal but could not find a way past David de Gea.

Behind the front four, everyone in a Blue shirt put in a display of which they can be pleased, though a special mention has to go to Ryan Bertrand. The young Englishman has had an indifferent campaign and had a horrible game at Southampton on Saturday but he did not put a foot wrong today. Coming on half-way through the first half following Ashley Cole's injury, there were concerns that he would be exposed by the likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck yet he stood tall in front of all of them and used the ball simply and effectively when in possession.

Equally, John Obi Mikel provided a steadying influence and was the fulcrum between defence and attack. However, had it not been for a gravity-defying save from Petr Cech there is every chance that all that hard work would have counted for nothing. His flying stop from Javier Hernandez's close range header has to be one of the saves of this or any other season and gave the rest of the team added belief that they would see the tie through.

Rafael Benitez can look back on a job well done although he will have known that a win was the only acceptable result following the tactical debacle at Southampton. Having bet the house on progressing in the FA Cup he will be more relieved than jubilant as he still has a maelstrom of tricky fixtures to negotiate.

But rather than focus on the possible negatives, Chelsea fans should enjoy the moment. It is always tremendously satisfying to beat Manchester United and see Ferguson's face explode as a result. The fact that it keeps alive dreams of a fifth FA Cup success in seven seasons makes it all the sweeter.

FOLLOW PHIL LYTHELL ON TWITTER @PhilLythell

ESPN Conversations