Just 48 hours after both sides were involved in Premier League action, Chelsea and Manchester United will lock horns once more on Monday for the right to meet Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals
Despite the fact that it was Chelsea that came back from two goals down in the original meeting at Old Trafford, it was United that were left grateful at having a second chance after suffering an onslaught from the visitors in the second half.
Yet the replay does neither side any favors, crammed as it is into a packed climax to the season. The congestion should be felt less by United, which, with a luxury of a 15-point lead atop the Premier League table, were able to rest several first-team players for their victory over Sunderland.
Such options are not so readily afforded Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez, who not only has a smaller squad, but is also still involved in a scrap to claim a vital Champions League place for next season. Having played more games than any side in Europe this season, Benitez has been faced with a constant battle of trying to keep his key players fresh. Incredibly, Chelsea will also have to play the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal with Rubin Kazan just three days later.
While gaining a top four spot in the Premier League must be the priority for everyone at Stamford Bridge, Benitez sprung something of a surprise in starting with the likes of Ashley Cole and Eden Hazard on the bench at the weekend. Chelsea paid the price too as they succumbed to a defeat at Southampton. It does mean, though, that the Blues are likely to be able to field a strong lineup as they look to continue their incredible record in the competition in recent years as well as getting one over on rivals Manchester United.
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And, despite their inconsistent form, Chelsea have every reason to believe that they can reach Wembley.
United undoubtedly went into the first encounter as strong favorites and looked set to blitz their opponents having raced into a 2-0 lead inside just 11 minutes. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faded badly after the break and Benitez’s substitutions, bringing on both John Mikel Obi and Eden Hazard, were decisive in turning the match on its head.
Hazard got Chelsea back into the match and Ramires equalized before United goalkeeper David de Gea pulled off an astonishing save to deny Juan Mata in the last minute of the 90. Having just days earlier dropped out of the Champions League in agonizing fashion to Real Madrid, United just survived their treble aspirations being reduced to chasing just the Premier League trophy as Chelsea rose to the big occasion.
It seems hard to imagine that Hazard will not start at Stamford Bridge on Monday and along with Juan Mata -- providing he recovers from a fever -- they will be crucial to Chelsea maintaining their chances of getting their hands on the FA Cup for an incredible fifth time in seven seasons.
Ferguson has often used Phil Jones to negate the most threatening of opposition attacking midfielders this season and with the young England international returning to fitness, it could be that he is assigned to try and negate the influence of Mata and Hazard.
The worry for Chelsea fans, though, must be that the creative work of that duo, along with Oscar, is not capitalized upon. Fernando Torres’ struggles have been well documented, but after a good start to his Chelsea career, Demba Ba has scored just once in his last nine starts.
At the other end, United’s Robin van Persie has also been going through something of a drought after an incredible start to the season. But the Dutchman’s three goals in two games for the Netherlands during the recent international break and a big role in United’s goal against Sunderland suggests a return to form. Coupled with the incredible options available to United in attack, that may ultimately prove the deciding factor in an FA Cup tie which could go right to the wire.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-2 Manchester United
When and where: The FA Cup quarterfinal replay will kick-off at 7.30 a.m. ET on Monday. Coverage in the U.S. will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel.