If Chelsea were deserved victors at the end of a concussive, occasionally toxic, increasingly open quarter-final replay, this was a victory that also emphasised the playing riches that remain beneath the hierarchical chaos that has lingered around the club. The prospect of a fifth FA Cup in seven years seems an unlikely garland to a season of poisonous upheaval; but there was a reminder at Stamford Bridge that this has also been a season leavened by some vibrant attacking football, led on this occasion by Eden Hazard’s scampering rapier and given force by Demba Ba‘s loping athleticism.
As for United, it seems facetious to suggest that the season is pretty much over now, with just a league title left to hoover up, just as it seems unfair to linger on the failings of a team who are 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League. And yet this is a team in transition at a club that has earned the right to expect a little more in the way of attacking imagination than the stripped-down toil on show.
Just as at times in the league United have resembled a heavyweight boxer with a knockout blow, a granite chin and little in between, so they came unstuck against a Chelsea team of greater creative nuance who were able to conjure a moment of the highest class to win the match.
It was an afternoon of heavy weather all round, soundtracked by the taunting of opposing former England centre-halves, feisty on the pitch but decided by two moments of pure sporting fantasy. The only goal came out of nothing: Juan Mata‘s pass over the top looked to be delicately over-cooked but was made into a masterstroke by the balletically raised right leg of Demba Ba. Twelve minutes later came two more decisive touches: Javier Hernández’s header back across goal was deflected away by Petr Cech’s raised palm, a brilliant save combining reflexes and anticipation and cinematic enough to take the breath away.
And for all United’s urgency late on there was justice in the match being decided by two members of Chelsea’s front four. In the days leading up to this match Rafael Benítez had lingered on his relative lack of strikers and yet Chelsea’s great strength, their overload of attacking talent in midfield, was the deciding factor over two matches, just as here Hazard was a lone beacon of scurrying creativity in a jarringly niggly first half.
Moving into the centre away from the excellent Antonio Valencia, who started at right-back, Hazard it was who began to turn the tie Chelsea’s way around the hour mark: legs always pumping, surprisingly strong in the upper body and always playing with his head up, he came on a little like Joe Cole’s bionic younger brother.
For United there will be regrets at exiting the FA Cup having fielded such a cautious starting line-up. Phil Jones began in central midfield, presumably to counter the muscular influence of Mikel Jon Obi from the last game. Increasingly cast as the footballing equivalent of a pair of muddy wellies Sir Alex Ferguson can pull out of his car boot when a dirty job needs doing, Jones played his part alongside the reliably fine Michael Carrick, right up until United were required to chase the game, at which point they clearly missed the passing ability of Wayne Rooney and the drifting runs of Shinji Kagawa, who was left on the bench.
And so perhaps there is something to be said, after all, for simply hurling a fully stocked shopping trolley of superbly talented footballers on to a pitch and allowing them to get on with it while the management uproots itself every six months. Chelsea’s front four cost £90m. United’s starting equivalent of Hernández, Danny Welbeck, Nani and Tom Cleverley cost £23m, two of them academy products.
If there seems a paradox in Chelsea’s victory – a victory for flair over blue-collar toil, but also for the inanity of billionaire football’s fractured fantasy-spending – then this is just part of the crooked beauty of the game.
Either way Benítez was able to field his inherited midfield riches in the knowledge they would at some stage create, that two perfect touches can win a match, and by the end Oscar, Mata and Hazard were often stationed a few metres apart, a mobile triangle playing off the cuff even in the tightest of circumstances.
For Ferguson the nature of defeat – out-cavaliered by more creatively endowed opponents – perhaps offers a key as to how this champions-elect team will strengthen in the coming months. For Chelsea a semi-final against Manchester City awaits, a moment of rejuvenative dignity for the grand old trophy, and also for a Benítez mini-era that, as the sun came out at the end over a quietly steaming Stamford Bridge, seemed to offer the chance of a late reprieve.