So much for our FA Cup. With Wigan Athletic winning the first semifinal, the road to silverware seemed clear but for a major roadbump in the form of Manchester City. Unfortunately, Chelsea weren't able to make the most of the opportunity -- poor play in the first half and an inventive refereeing performance doomed the Blues to a 2-1 loss, their first outright defeat in this competition for five years.
The match started badly and it was a minor miracle that we survived the first twenty minutes unscathed. Much like in the second half against Rubin Kazan, Chelsea's midfield seemed to insist on giving the ball away as efficiently as possible, and City had the firepower to make us pay.
Petr Cech was called into action by Sergio Aguero's 7th minute effort, the Argentinian attempting to redirect a loose ball home after a scramble in the box, and although Vincent Kompany cleared off the line from Eden Hazard following an error by Costel Pantilimon, Chelsea were rather obviously on the back foot.
Much of the blame for a sleepy start must fall on the capable shoulders of Juan Mata and Hazard, who were joining their teammates in merrily giving the ball away for no reason. With the triumvirate misfiring -- Oscar hasn't really been himself for a little while -- it was all too easy for City to take control.
The virtually constant pressure had actually abated before the 2011 champions drew first blood, and although Samir Nasri was the one who nicked the ball home, the hard work was all done by Yaya Toure. The big midfielder picked up possession on the halfway line and thundered down the wings, drawing the entire Chelsea team towards him and then playing Nasri in with a slide-rule pass.
The former Arsenal man then scored virtually by accident -- he attempted a pass to Aguero when he should have shot and was incredibly fortunate to see the ball come back to him via a Branislav Ivanovic box. Suddenly through on goal, Nasri poked past Cech to give City a 1-0 lead.
Things very nearly got worse minutes later when City broke down the right and James Milner ended up with the ball in front of an empty net, but somehow the midfielder managed to hit Aguero with his shot and a grateful Cech was able to claim possession. And just on the stroke of halftime, a Chelsea were saved from disaster by Milner once more when he chose to shoot from an acute angle despite a five on two counterattack. Vincent Kompany blasted the rebound wide.
But our luck was never going to last, and Aguero inflicted a crushing blow after the break. For all of Ivanovic's virtues, he's still very poor at reading left-to-right diagonals, and Aguero was able to beat him on a Gareth Barry cross to produce a looping header that left Cech stranded.
The game looked dead until Benitez made a 65th minute change, taking the bold choice of withdrawing the ineffective John Obi Mikel to add another attacker to the mix. Chelsea switched into a 4-4-2, using a central midfield tandem of Oscar and Ramires while Fernando Torres came on to partner Demba Ba up front.
Torres' introduction had an immediate impact -- his first touch was a flick on David Luiz's long pass forward, enabling Ba to hook home a glorious acrobatic finish -- and the change in shape combined with the hope of the goal seemed to completely reinvigorate the side.
Pantilimon just about managed to get the ball away from Juan Mata without conceding a penalty shortly after the goal, and the City keeper came up with a phenomenal stop to deny Demba Ba his brace after Hazard embarrassed Gael Clichy and cut the ball back for a chance that really ought to have found the back of the net.
With Chelsea weakening the midfield, the game became incredibly stretched, and although the Blues were on top City were frequently causing problems on the break, leaving Ivanovic, David Luiz and on one rather strange occasion Oscar to pull off some fantastic last-ditch defending to ensure that the momentum stayed on our side.
The referee did no such thing, as evidenced by a rather amused tweet from professional cyclist Chris Hoy, whose name differs from our favourite Friend to Ballboys by a solitary letter:
I guess Chris Foy's having a shocker again today! :-)— Chris Hoy (@chrishoy) April 14, 2013
Hoy's guess was spot on. Foy had let some rough play go unpunished in the early stages, but that was nothing compared to the two-footed stamp Aguero produced on David Luiz after he'd brought down the Chelsea defender on the left wing. It was vicious and clearly deliberate, and Foy ignored it entirely when a red card and a lengthy suspension would have been the appropriate response.
Happily, David Luiz was unhurt, and Foy also neglected to punish Torres for a retaliatory rake to Aguero's Achilles, but before the match was over Chelsea would be stung by the referee again. With Torres free on goal, Kompany opted to defuse the threat by attempting to lift the striker off the ground using his shirt, eventually causing the ball to run on for Pantilimon to collect.
That was the last significant threat to City's lead, and that fact that it was thwarted through no fault of Torres' leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. Just like against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Chelsea had been second best and fallen behind. This time, the comeback wasn't quite enough.
With the FA Cup off the table, the Europa League now represents the club's only hope of silverware from this disaster of a season. Third place has to be the priority at this point, but there's nothing to be ashamed of in losing to a team like City in the semifinals.
PS: Seriously [fun] Sergio Aguero.