FA Cup

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Chelsea, United revive FA Cup magic

Goals on Sunday: Recap of Manchester United's FA Cup clash vs. Chelsea.
Goals on Sunday: Recap of Manchester United's FA Cup clash vs. Chelsea.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

Premier League

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For years, people have been wondering how to restore the luster to the FA Cup. It turns out, all that needed to be done was to make sure the league season was a stroll by the beginning of April.

With Manchester United 15 points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League and no English sides left in the Champions League, Monday’s quarterfinal replay between Chelsea and United at Stamford Bridge (live, FOX Soccer, Monday, 7:30 a.m. ET) is arguably the biggest game remaining in England this season - at least until the semifinal when the winner will play the league champion Manchester City.

The scheduling – 48 hours after a full Premier League program – also evokes, if not the best traditions of the Cup, then certainly one of its more endearing quirks. The collective memory of the competition is replete with images of exhausted players, thick seventies hair matted with sweat, socks rolled about their ankles, dragging themselves through thick mud for their fourth game in a week.

It’s not going to be quite like that on Monday, of course. Modern squads are so vast that both sides could play an entirely different eleven on Monday to the one that plays in the league on Saturday (United is away at Sunderland; Chelsea at Southampton) while Chelsea must also be mindful of Thursday’s Europa League quarterfinal against Rubin Kazan.

The two league meetings between the sides have both produced thrilling games in which United has surrendered a two-goal lead, although in the league meeting at Stamford Bridge in October, United found a late winner. That day, United allowed Chelsea to dominate possession, soaking up pressure and then looking to break rapidly down the flanks – where now ex-manager Robert Di Matteo’s side was always vulnerable thanks to his insistence on fielding all three of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard. Luis Antonio Valencia, in particular, found vast swathes of space in which to work and he – as he has surprising frequently over the past few years – repeatedly got the better of Ashley Cole. That was the source of United’s second goal as Rafael, untracked by Hazard, surged forwards to create a two-against one, with Valencia eventually crossing for Robin van Persie to score.

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United seemed intent on frustrating Chelsea after that, effectively taking up a 4-1-4-1 shape with Michael Carrick sitting on front of the back four, Tom Cleverley picking up Ramires and Wayne Rooney getting goalside of John Obi Mikel when Chelsea had the ball. Rooney is an unusual forward in his willingness and capacity to perform a defensive role but he can be a little wild and it was his foul that brought the free-kick from which Juan Mata pulled one back just before halftime.

Chelsea continued to control midfield but after Ramires leveled, its intensity dropped and, after 35 minutes of domination, allowed United back into the game. Two red cards - one clear for Branislav Ivanovic’s professional foul, one less so as Fernando Torres picked up a controversial second yellow card for diving – turned the game and Javier Hernandez scored a winner that turned out to be offside. However legitimate Chelsea’s grievances, two things stood out tactically: Chelsea could overwhelm United in midfield, but United had the beating of Chelsea on the flanks.

In the first FA Cup game, by which time Rafa Benitez had succeeded Di Matteo, Sir Alex Ferguson sought to strengthen the middle, playing Shinji Kagawa on the left – with Nani on the right, largely because of Valencia’s loss of form. That meant United had less natural width, but effectively an extra half-body in the center, and the ploy seemed to work. He also used Hernandez rather than van Persie and that had the effect of pushing back Chelsea’s central defenders – perhaps mindful of the way the rapid Hernandez had got in behind David Luiz in May 2011 – and that in turn caused Chelsea to lose the compactness that Benitez is so insistent upon.

That meant two things: first that there was less pressure than there ought to have been on United’s midfielders when they had the ball; second that United posed an aerial threat even when the ball was in a position usually considered too deep to be a dangerous crossing position because they could get players into the box without them being offside. Both contributed to Hernandez’s headed opener from Carrick’s floated pass.

Chelsea conceded a second to Rooney but it came back into the game midway through the first half, largely because United got sloppy. The substitutions – Hazard for Victor Moses and Mikel for Frank Lampard – made the most of the vulnerability United had exposed. Mikel’s arrival gave Ramires greater license to get forward and gave Chelsea greater control of midfield – and it was Ramires who would net the equalizer.

Given the squad rotation that’s likely after the weekend’s fixtures, it’s difficult to know exactly how both sides will line up on Monday. But what Chelsea has proved twice this season is that while United may be more incisive, it can dominate it in midfield. Mikel, surely, will start, and then it’s a case of whether Chelsea can capitalize on controlling the center or whether, again, United can cut through it on the flanks.

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