Manchester United paid the penalty, literally, for a subdued Wembley first half as an Eden Hazard spot-kick won Chelsea the Emirates FA Cup final at Wembley.
A legendary fightback looked on the cards with a thrilling second-half display by Jose Mourinho’s side, yet the Reds were unable to cancel out the 22nd-minute winner from Hazard. United’s half of the stadium were enthralled and rejuvenated by a brilliant rally in the second period but it was that opening half which cost their team the trophy.
Wembley was done up to the nines with all its pre-match pomp and ceremony. Pyrotechnics, flame throwers, flags and a fly past by the Royal Air Force all added to the build-up to the big occasion. There were also two huge banners hanging down from both ends of the stadium to honour the late Ray Wilkins who played for both clubs. The much loved and respected midfielder died last month at the age of 61.
United boss Jose Mourinho had given Romelu Lukaku every chance to be fit to be named in his cup final line-up. Having injured his ankle last month against Arsenal, the striker had been back home in Belgium attempting to make a 100 per cent recovery. He is United’s top scorer in the competition this season with five goals but despite all the best efforts, the medics and Mourinho decided he couldn’t be risked from the start.
Lukaku did make the bench and had to watch his fellow countryman Eden Hazard pretty much dominate the first half of the final. The Belgian midfielder was a thorn in United’s side as he grabbed centre stage above anyone else.
A distribution error from Phil Jones enabled Chelsea to break on United in the ninth minute and Hazard almost prospered but his drive was stopped at his near post by David De Gea’s right leg. It was a warning shot for United.
There were two shouts for spot kicks from both sides but referee Michael Oliver got both calls correct after the challenges on Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alexis correct. The official was also bang on in the biggest moment of the first half.
Hazard again had the opportunity to run at United as Chelsea sprang from their own half and the midfielder got ahead in the race with Jones. United’s centre-back was struggling and had to lunge in to tackle Hazard but the attempt only upended the Belgian and Oliver had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
There was little argument among the Reds’ ranks and in the 12-yard shoot-out, even De Gea couldn’t read Hazard and he went the wrong way as he put Chelsea 1-0 ahead.
At that stage, United could not find any fire or cutting edge to disrupt Chelsea’s comfortable afternoon. Only late first-half efforts by Jones at the far post and Rashford getting snuffed out in the penalty box suggested the Reds might be capable of another fightback.
The Reds certainly had more verve and vitality after Mourinho sent his team out early for the second half. The players looked ready to mount a customary comeback and finally started asking Chelsea some difficult questions.
The fans at United’s end of the stadium were on their feet with something to roar about, most notably when United surged into the danger area in numbers and the attack ended with a crashing drive from Rashford that Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois found tough to handle.
The Reds were looking far more dangerous and the barometer was Chelsea boss Antonio Conte who got more and more animated in the technical area in an attempt to rally his side. Mourinho was far more composed with hands on hips as he realised his dressing room words had had a positive effect yet again.
United’s pressure was mounting, Chelsea’s composure was shredded, and the intensity looked to have paid off in the 63rd minute when Alexis stabbed home from close range after following up a loose ball but the Chilean was flagged offside.
Nevertheless this was the rise in the Reds’ ferocity and fire that the final needed. The Blues were now crumbling as the Reds seized the upper hand. All that was needed was an equaliser.
However, it was the Londoners who almost scored the game’s second goal. The Blues threatened to snuff out United’s gallant rally in the 70th minute when they broke away and the Reds needed another De Gea super stop to deny Marcos Alonso.
United responded immediately to that attack as the Cup final lived up to the billing. The Reds roared back and a Jesse Lingard and Rashford link-up saw Courtois deny the latter in a one-to-one situation.
The pair of Academy graduates were then substituted, with Lukaku and Anthony Martial coming on to pose Conte’s reeling side new problems. But it was Nemanja Matic against his old club who thrashed in a piledriver that again caused Courtois trouble and the Belgian keeper, who seemingly doesn’t like to hold shots, once more batted it away with two fists unconvincingly.
Relentless United were piling it on and Paul Pogba came close with eight minutes to go with a glancing header from an Antonio Valencia corner. With the urgent need for a late goal, Mourinho played his last personnel card. He sacrificed Jones in defence for Juan Mata with three minutes of normal time to go. But the Reds had run out of steam and Chelsea, who had been on the back foot since the interval, were able to survive and hold out for a slender victory.
United: De Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones (Mata 87), Young; Matic, Pogba, Herrera, Lingard (Martial 73), Alexis, Rashford (Lukaku 73).
Subs not used: Romero, Bailly, Darmian, McTominay.
Booked: Jones, Valencia.
Chelsea: Courtois, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Rudiger, Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Bakayoko, Alonso, Hazard (Willian 90), Giroud (Morata 89).
Subs not used: Caballero, Zappacosta, T. Chalobah, Barkley, Pedro.
Comeback kings almost did it again
United’s ability to bounce back was demonstrated in the previous round at Wembley, in the semi-final against Spurs, when the Reds recovered from an early 1-0 deficit to win a place in the final. But although we knew Jose Mourinho would not settle for the first-half effort against Chelsea, his team just couldn’t find the breakthrough goal that surely would have flattened Antonio Conte’s physically flagging side.
The Reds will have to settle for second place
Yes, a piece of silverware would have been a superb end to the season. But United have still achieved a highest league placing and points tally since 2013 so there is much to be pleased about and much to build on in the 2018/19 campaign.