Rafa response brings Blues a replay
It is a rare individual who can bring harmony to the warring fans of Manchester United and Chelsea. Rafa Benitez is that man, a manager who had two sets of supporters trading uncomplimentary chants about everything from his weight to his sanity to his competence. So, with Chelsea trailing 2-0 and heading out of the FA Cup, a double substitution that involved the removal of Frank Lampard brought a predictable response. "You don't know what you're doing," chorused the amateur tacticians in the stands.
And, indeed, Benitez didn't know what he was getting himself into when he accepted Roman Abramovich's invitation to manage Chelsea. On this occasion, while he is unlikely to be afforded any credit for it by the fans of either side, perhaps he did. Eden Hazard was introduced and scripted a comeback with potentially big consequences. Chelsea's marathon season could yet incorporate FA Cup glory and, while moments of vindication for Benitez have been few and far between, this was one. "I am a professional," the Spaniard said, taking pride in outwitting Sir Alex Ferguson with his mid-match tactical switch and confounding his critics. He may deny his old rival another Manchester derby in the semi-final, let alone the fourth Double of his reign.
Because, as Swansea ball boys can testify, Hazard can have an explosive effect in Cup ties. He did again, albeit in very different fashion. His predecessor on the pitch, Victor Moses, had hit the corner flag with a shot. Hazard, with a brilliant curler, found the top corner.
With invention and incision, he brought a shift in momentum to the game. Rafael da Silva had flourished against Cristiano Ronaldo and Oscar in the space of five days; with his tiring legs against the fresher Hazard, he floundered. "Hazard has talent and can make a difference," Benitez said. He did.
But so did the other newcomer, the much derided John Obi Mikel, gave Chelsea a platform in midfield. The liberated Ramires, freed of the holding midfielder's duties, burst forward to level. But for David de Gea, with a Schmeichel-esque star jump of a stop, Juan Mata would have won it. "It's a terrific save at a very important time because if it goes in, we are out," Ferguson said. It was almost an improbable ending to an extraordinary fightback. Seemingly beaten after 11 minutes, apparently exhausted after a season of diminishing returns, Chelsea had rallied.
And, for the second time in six days, this was a chastening comeback for United. Imitators are flattening them, first Real Madrid and then Chelsea coming from behind to leave the Premier League leaders deflated. What shaped up to be the finest week of their season may instead prove their worst.
The paradox in their campaign is that, despite their remarkable consistency, they have rarely performed for 90 minutes. Often they do not need to. Here, Ferguson felt, fatigue was a factor in their decline. "We ran out of legs," he said, arguing Benitez's changes were not the critical factor. "Our two full-backs Rafa [Da Silva] and Patrice [Evra] are just knackered and the two centre midfielders [Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley] tired badly.
Benitez had little sympathy citing, to use the word that is invariably mentioned when his verbal jousts with Ferguson are remembered, some facts. "They played on Tuesday, we played in Romania on Thursday," he said. "They were playing at home. They had everything in favour."
After a superb start, still more was going United's way. Javier Hernandez, often a scourge of Chelsea, scored for the fourth successive game against them with a looping header from Carrick's exquisitely-chipped pass. The recalled, returning Wayne Rooney curled in a free kick, David Luiz's huge hair applying the finest of touches. Rooney posed in front of the Stretford End, accepting their adulation. This, it seemed, illustrated his enduring value and, Ferguson may have felt, justified his horses-for-courses selection policy. Once again, however, events rendered the controversial issue of Rooney's future a subplot in an enthralling game.
"We could have been 4-0 up in the first 25 minutes of the match," his manager said. Both strikers had a chance to double their tally. Neither took it but, with Rio Ferdinand imperious in defence and Carrick classy in midfield, it scarcely seemed to matter.
But, as Ferguson conceded: "They were far the better team in the second half." Hazard, Oscar and Mata formed a potent trio of creators, again exposing the greatest deficiency in the United squad: the lack of a natural, imposing defensive midfielder. Hernandez, the arch-predator, could not hold the ball up. Rooney was trapped in no-man's land between midfield and attack, perhaps showing why Ferguson had preferred Danny Welbeck against Real. The defending, initially assured, became more fraught.
And Chelsea, playing their 51st game of the season, showed a stamina to suggest it was their first. "If you analyse the game, we deserved to win," Benitez said. They almost did, one Spaniard frustrating another as De Gea thwarted Mata and denying a third, Benitez, a cathartic triumph. Yet after the abuse and the invective, the calls for Jose Mourinho and tributes to Roberto Di Matteo, the man every paying customer in Old Trafford loved to hate had proved his point. A pariah is no fool.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Eden Hazard. Only on the pitch for 40 minutes, but he was a dynamic, destructive blend of speed and skill. Having rejected United to join Chelsea, he threatened to eject them from the FA Cup.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferguson argued that their efforts against Real took their toll and, for United, this was a game of two halves. Despite their outstanding league record, however, they have struggled to close many games out this season, even at Old Trafford and, for once, they were punished.
CHELSEA VERDICT: Terrific for the second half, it prompted the question of why they haven't played like that more often of late. Benitez's squad rotation is often controversial but his was the stronger side in the closing stages. Yet as their season could involve 71 games, it will be remarkable if his players can stay as fresh as they were in the closing stages here. Given their packed fixture list, no one is quite sure when the replay will be staged.