Manchester United knock CHelsea out of the Champions League for the second time in four years, although this time they had the decency not to take things to a penalty shootout in the process, which is something. With Chelsea down 1-0 on aggregate and travelling to Old Trafford, it was always going to be very difficult to get anything out of the game, although they gave at good go of it for most of the match. A late first-half goal by Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez put the tie more or less out of reach, however, and although Didier Drogba gave the Blues hope after being reduced to ten men, Ji-Sung Park immediately struck bad to any hopes of a miracle in Manchester.
Before the match, there was much speculation over Chelsea's shape and the starting centre forward (after a woefully ineffective display at Stamford Bridge using the 4-4-2 there are never any real expectation that we'd deploy both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba alongside it). Would it be Drogba, or would it be Torres? How would Chelsea line up? For that matter, how would United line up?
Sir Alex Ferguson said after the match that the only surprise in Chelsea's starting XI was the inclusion of Alex, fit for his first start since last year. Everything else, he said, was as expected. This is a little bit odd, because Carlo Ancelotti threw away all of Chelsea's usual shapes and emerged with a 4-3-2-1 shape that used Nicolas Anelka and Frank Lampard as dual trequartistas with Torres as the lone striker. If Ferguson was expecting the shape, he sure didn't share that with his team - United's 4-4-2 was a total mess against it in the early going.
Chelsea started very brightly and were regularly carving the hosts apart with brilliant buildup play. The base of three midfielders held the line, Anelka and Lampard providing the link, and Torres... well, he didn't really do much, and that was the problem. The Blues didn't manage to generate nearly enough chances with him in the game. Lampard should have scored very early on, and Anelka missed twice by a combined distance of about four inches with Edwin van der Sar well beaten.
Although Chelsea's shape was allowing them to dominate, there were some problems (namely the three attackers) and United were able to get back into the match. After about the first thirty minutes, the hosts had survived the early storm, and began to exert some pressure of their own. Javier Hernandez had the ball in the back of the net via a header, but the goal ended up being ruled out, correctly, for offside.
Chelsea didn't learn, though. Right at the stroke of halftime they gave the ball away with a silly free kick, Anelka was caught out playing left back, and Ryan Giggs was able to escape him far too easily and send in a cross that Hernandez converted at the back post. There were suspicions of offside again, but this was close enough that you'd probably have to give Chicharito the benefit of the doubt. So, despite all of that early pressure and promise, Chelsea were down 2-0 on aggregate with 45 minutes left to play.
As an aside: It's funny how many people said at the time that the goal didn't much matter - Chelsea had to score twice to win anyway. This is absurd. Without the Chicharito goal, Chelsea had to score twice in 75 minutes. With it, they had to score twice in 45. Time matters.
Drogba replaced Torres at halftime, which struck many as too quick, but in truth Torres had been painfully ineffective throughout the first half. I'm not going to slam him or anything, and it's not like Anelka and Lampard were being particularly helpful, but it's obvious in retrospect that Drogba was the right choice here - he simply did a much better job than Torres did.
Anyway, Chelsea were getting desperate to score a couple and concede none - so desperate, in fact, that Ramries got himself sent off for attempting a silly tackle in the early going. The 23 year-old was already on a booking, and the ref was playing by the book, so off he went, and so too went Chelsea's hopes - until Drogba latched onto a through ball from Michael Essien and slammed the ball into the back of the net.
Hope! Delicious hope! Cruel hope! Dreadful hope! Chelsea fans were raised from misery by Drogba's goal and instantly plunged back into despair as Alex left right back Branislav Ivanovic overloaded on the right, leaving Park Ji-Sung free to cut inside and leather a shot past Petr Cech - less than two minutes after Drogba had brought the tie to 2-1. This, finally, was the very end.
Chelsea are out of the Champions League. They had a clear path to the finals had they beaten United here, with Schalke 04 awaiting in the semi-finals. However, they didn't manage it. I think we were mis-managed in the first leg by fielding a 4-4-2, kind of screwed out of a penalty that would have totally changed the tie, and then got bad luck in the first half and were caught trying to chase.
I don't see United as a conclusively better side, although I think they played better over the course of these two matches. But as I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, play this quarter-final twenty times and we get through in nine of them. There's a lot of luck involved when teams this good face each other, and this time things didn't fall our way.
There's not a whole lot left to play for this season, which is disappointing, but at least we've put the fear of failing to qualify for the Champions League aside with a string of good results in the league. Congratulations to United, and we're just going to have to come back next season (with a revamped squad) and see what we can do. David Luiz will be there next year. It'll be awesome.