It was do-or-die for Chelsea and manager Antonio Conte today. Although the same could be said about José Mourinho, the Blues’ former coach now at Manchester United, who was also risking a trophy-less season to his name.
But it was Chelsea who had the best lucky pendant in Olivier Giroud, winner of all four FA Cup finals he’s participated in. It was also the Londoners who better executed their gameplan to edge United for a 1-0 win at Wembley to take home the 8th FA Cup title of their 113-year history.
Chelsea’s starting lineup was all but a surprise for us. Conte stuck to the 3-5-1-1, Eden Hazard slotting himself just behind Olivier Giroud in attack. N’Golo Kanté would provide protection for our defence while liberating Tiémoué Bakayoko to push forward, with Cesc Fàbregas set to dictate play. The backline had César Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and Antonio Rüdiger - Chelsea’s best defensive core in the last few matches - to stop United’s from coming at Thibaut Courtois, who was starting his first FA Cup game this season.
On United’s side, Mourinho was forced to drop Romelu Lukaku from his eleven selected players because of injury. The Belgian forward, who was present on the bench, gave way to Marcus Rashford. Rashford played next to Alexis Sánchez as one of the two centre-forwards for the Red Devils today, with Jesse Lingard taking charge as an attacking midfielder.
A clash between two coaches known for their conservative ways of setting their teams up had both sides studying each other from kickoff. United exchanged passes among their backline from one flank to the other, gaining ground little by little while Chelsea stayed put.
The Blues were intent on blocking United’s paths down centre, and so the Red Devils had to resort to plays on the wings. They were unsucessful, as César Azpilicueta and Antonio Rüdiger, with help of wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, easily dealt with these attempts.
It was clear from those failed efforts on United’s part that they had no idea how to play without Lukaku on the pitch. Even with Lingard playing deeper than usual, they were unable to find anything forward as they fruitlessly threw crosses at our box only to find our defenders clearing the ball with ease.
United may have had the lion’s share of possession, but Chelsea were clearly ahead when it came to performance. The off-the-ball work was rightfully followed by our actions on the ball.
With 35% ball retention, time with the ball was short but we made plenty with it. United when defending were almost exact opposites of Chelsea, leaving the Blues with space to explore when attacking. And Chelsea on the ball were also on the other side of United’s spectrum, being quick with their play instead of cooking it with sideways passing.
Matic, despite being a midfielder, was the one player constantly being an obstacle to our advances. Even with Ander Herrera at times taking himself out of the game in his attempt to nullify Eden Hazard in his man-marking duties.
But unlike that dreaded 2-0 loss at Old Trafford last season, Herrera was not as successful in his mission. Twice, Eden broke free from his dedicated marker. The first time he forced David de Gea into his first intervention in the game after Bakayoko’s interception and pass to set him up. In the second, he earned himself the chance to score Chelsea’s opener with a penalty spotkick after a shambolic trial by Phil Jones to stop the Belgian from getting a 1v1 with the Spanish keeper.
And Eden converted the chance. As calm as a breeze, he took the ball to the opposite side of De Gea to score the match’s first goal.
United’s desperation only grew. They continued to throw themselves forward but failing to break our lines with their crosses, all while Chelsea got the best chances on counters.
Only once, when United decided to stick the ball to the ground, they managed to give some to our defence. It was their last gasp before referee Michael Oliver ended the first half with a blow of his whistle.
For the second half, United changed their offensive games. And in response, Chelsea switched their defensive approach as well.
Seeing how ineffective they were with crosses, the Mancunians were now more willing to put the ball on the ground and work with it. As such Chelsea dropped deeper, since United were starting to push their lines forward.
Wing-backs Moses and Alonso, who spent much of the first half stuck in defensive duty, continued to do so to handle overlaps from veterans Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. The battle for possession in the midfield was often lost, despite Kanté and Bakayoko’s best efforts to compensate Fàbregas playing as if he was a rookie in the biggest game of his career.
Freedom to roam given by Chelsea to United was offset by the space we found in our counters. They were way more dangerous now that they were consistently creating chances, and forcing Courtois to work.
And if De Gea is the best goalkeeper in England for many, Courtois continued to prove that he is a close second. With his colleagues failing to pick up opponents in set- and open plays, the keeper (thankfully) showed up to the occasion.
Chelsea at times answered this pressure from United with Eden. We were close to giving him the chance to score a second goal with a penalty spotkick. However Neil Swarbrick, who was the video assistant referee today, did not think Young’s clear touch of his arm to take the ball out for a corner at minute 70 a play worthy of a penalty.
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Maybe Mourinho did not anticipate United to score two goals in sucession during regular time. But he still believed they could achieve a tie by throwing both Anthony Martial and Lukaku in the mix in place of under-performing Lingard and Rashford 73 minutes into the match.
The duo showed their cards quickly after entering the pitch, combining in the box for a shot taken by the French youngster. He then kept on wrecking havoc on his left flank, constantly dribbling and cutting inside to create chances for himself and his teammates.
As Chelsea coughed up some defensive slips, Conte only made his first substitution at the 89th minute by taking out Giroud, who did not have many chances to do what he does best, for Álvaro Morata. It was followed by Willian taking the pitch for Eden, with the Belgian receiving a round of applause from the blue half of the stands.
So we began an exercise of time-wasting. Courtois received the most justified yellow card of his career as the clock ticked down to 90 minutes of regular time, and then entered the 5 additional minutes of complete anguish for Mourinho on the sidelines.
This FA Cup title was a good ending theme to what was an underwhelming season. And we hope we can take this trip back to Wembley in the next term.
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