Following a sport is not about winning. Or rather, following a sport sanely is not about winning. If your emotional state depends on your club’s success, frankly you’re going to be in for an unhappy time. Not even the greatest sides in the world are immune to disaster, and even the very good ones will inflict more pain than joy. Relying on success is an extremely bad bet.
The sensible way to enjoy sports, then, is to not merely enjoy your club’s triumphs but to revel in everyone else’s failures. If you can wring enjoyment out of schadenfreude, and you despise enough other teams, you’re guaranteed at least some measure of happiness at season’s end. Following a sport is about enjoying everyone else losing. The more painful and infuriating the loss, the better.
Today, Chelsea inflicted a painful and infuriating loss on Manchester United. Having already dealt out a ritual humiliation to ex-manager Jose Mourinho the last time he came to Stamford Bridge, we decided to inflict a more subtle form of embarrassment this time around. In October, we gave United a thrashing. Today was a ref-aided troll job. And it was beautiful.
Ander Herrera’s first-half red card was probably debatable, but it was also more or less self-inflicted. The visitors’ game plan was to man-mark Chelsea into oblivion, and a key corollary to that plan involved kicking Eden Hazard a lot. By the fifth foul, Michael Oliver had cottoned on to the rotational hack-job that United were putting on the Belgian, and warned them that next foul would bring trouble. Ander Herrera, already on a booking for a classic ‘let’s pretend I didn’t mean this’ shoulder check, ignored that warning.
And so Manchester United played a full hour of football 10 vs. 11, at England’s current top side. If Chelsea had felt like it, or made a little more of their many opportunities in front of goal, they could have ended up three or four. Instead, they settled for a solitary goal and spent the remainder of the evening giggling to themselves as United flailed helplessly against a blue wall.
Our guests’ frustration was both palpable and mounting throughout, and scoring again would have ruined it. Winning 3-0 after going a man up is boring. 1-0 and watching players, fans and manager whining after turning their own cynicism against them? That is art. Beautiful, beautiful art.
Some football happened too, and I guess I’m supposed to talk about that.
Chelsea should have been ahead even before United suffered their deeply hilarious personnel reduction. The first fifteen minutes passed more or less without incident, but it was soon clear just why Mourinho had his side so focused on fouling Hazard. A low pass came out of the defence, drawing Chris Smalling out to meet him before he could turn. Said turn promptly removed Smalling from the play so violently he might as well have crawled over to the visitors’ bench to have a cry. Hazard was free, and it took a double save from Matteo Darmian and David de Gea to prevent his low shot from creeping in at the far post.
The subsequent corner drew another fine save from de Gea. Gary Cahill and Marcos Rojo battled for a loose ball eight yards out and central, and Cahill won out. His shot was off-balance but well-struck and well-placed regardless, and it took a phenomenal fingertip save to keep the scoreline level.
United’s response was to have Herrera, whose baby-face fails to disguise the fact that he is a walking bundle of aggravated malice*, take out Hazard the next time he made a run, breaking stride and leaning into him with shoulder and elbow after Phil Jones had been effortlessly bypassed. Putting your shoulder through someone and pretending that they’ve run into you is one of the oldest tricks in the defensive book, but unfortunately for Herrera, Oliver was standing six feet away and wasn’t taken in by the ruse, flashing a yellow at the United man.
*This is a compliment.
The cavalcade of fouls continued. Hazard has long claimed that being kicked merely encourages him, but even this seemed a little excessive. After yet another foul, this time perpetrated by Jones on the halfway line, Oliver called Smalling over for a chat. While we don’t actually know what was said, it seems pretty easy to piece together from the context: the next player to foul Hazard was going to get a booking along with it.
Herrera hooked him down within seconds of the restart. Sure, the foul itself was a pretty soft yellow card, and Hazard made the most of it, but the referee had drawn his line in the sand and United had ambled idiotically beyond it. Oliver unapologetically reached for his pocket, brandished yellow and then red, and dismissed Herrera with a pained look, like a headmaster dealing with an unruly pupil jeopardising his own future. If he’d said, “this hurts me more than it hurts you,” as Herrera trod off the pitch I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
The whining from all corners was profound. The players protested. Mourinho got into it with anyone and everyone he could find. Twitter briefly metamorphosed into a delightful fountain of un-righteous fury and slightly-more-righteous misery. It was fantastic.
On the pitch, Mourinho reshuffled his side, pulling Henrikh Mkhitaryan back for Marouane Fellaini and leaving Marcus Rashford as the lone striker. Rashford was playing through an illness that most were expecting to keep him out of the match, but despite that he acquitted himself magnificently against Cahill and David Luiz, causing them problems throughout with darting runs down the left channel. But with United down a man, he was left isolated and forced to create out of nothing.
Meanwhile, the dismissal had devastating effects on United’s defensive structure. A high pressing game which attempts to match the opposition man for man is much more difficult to maintain when you have fewer players than the opposition, and Chelsea were therefore able to run riot, attacking and holding possession at will.
It took until halftime for them to really work out the now-gaping holes in the visitors’ defence, but when they did. things got ugly. Cesar Azpilicueta was the main beneficiary, parking himself in right midfield, secure in the knowledge that nobody was tracking him. That opened up holes everywhere else, and six minutes after the interval said holes were exploited by none other than N’Golo Kante.
Kante’s solitary Chelsea goal to date had come against Manchester United, the slow-motion climax to the 4-0 hilarity the last time the Red Devils came to the Bridge. Kante is many things, but with his lack of interest in shooting he’d have been nobody’s pick to net this time around. Yet here he was, open at the top of the box and guiding a gentle pass into the bottom corner.
Watching replays of the goal is amusing. Paul Pogba barely bothers trying to block off the lane, so sure that the shot won’t come. Darmian is actually looking away and is visibly shocked to see Kante go for goal. De Gea is surprised too and a touch late to lean into his dive. And, of course, the Chelsea players are going berserk with joy. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing alongside Kante not loving him like a family member.
Chelsea were rampant. We had a brief intermission when both David Luiz and Cahill decided to make Thibaut Courtois do some work by letting Rashford create a chance out of thin air, but he saved well with his legs and from the corner the Blues went right back on the offensive.
Earlier, Mourinho claimed that Chelsea play mostly on the counterattack. Antonio Conte’s reply is that they don’t even practice counterattacking. The latter was in evidence as they broke forward, with Nemanja Matic and Kante contriving to turn a five on three break into a damp squib of a cross that was mopped up for a corner by Darmian (Diego Costa had a free header from said corner and should have scored).
The match didn’t exactly go without incident thereafter. It’s just that it was almost always the same incident. Chelsea would hold possession, patiently probing the United defence. United would then either foul someone (Antonio Valencia’s two-footed lunge on Kante and Rojo’s stamp on Hazard were particularly noteworthy) or let the Blues create a chance, which they would either ignore or waste entirely.
Not even the introduction of Cesc Fabregas managed to kill off the game, which remained tantalisingly 1-0. The visitors were drawn into hilarious, doomed effort to throw bodies forward and repulsed without any apparent effort by Chelsea’s defence. It must have been exasperating to watch as a United fan or a neutral; for the home supporters it was high comedy. Eventually Oliver put them out of their misery with the final whistle, ending what must have been one of the more painful experiences of Jose Mourinho’s coaching career and putting the Blues into the FA Cup semifinal.
We’ll face Tottenham Hotspur in the semis, by the way. The last time that happened, things went ok: