Chelsea prevented a second all-Manchester FA Cup semifinal in three seasons as they edged out Manchester United 1-0 in their sixth round replay at Stamford Bridge.
After a tight and cagey opening period Demba Ba scored a fine goal early in the second and, despite an increasingly open remaining 40 minutes, a fine performance by Petr Cech coupled with some poor finishing from Robin van Persie meant that was how the scoreline stayed to ensure Chelsea a last four meeting with Manchester City at Wembley.
As expected, long-time adversaries Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez made several changes to their sides from matches just two days earlier. Wayne Rooney was a surprise no-show in the United squad with a groin injury, while Juan Mata returned for Chelsea after suffering with a fever.
With Phil Jones selected in a midfield role to negate the creativity of Chelsea’s trio of attacking midfielders, United sat back looking to deny their opponents the kind of space that they exploited in coming from 2-0 down in the first match at Old Trafford.
While doing that, the visitors also looked to hit their opponents on the break but their passing in the final third continued to let them down. The clearest openings of the first half fell the way of Javier Hernandez, who was looking to continue his record of having scored seven goals in 10 games against Chelsea.
He could well have done just that but, after cutting in from the right, he elected to try and turn back on his right foot rather than taking the shot on with his weaker foot and the chance went begging.
Toward the end of the half there appeared little on when the Mexican international tried a shot from distance, but a combination of the ball’s swerve and Petr Cech committing himself too early meant an anxious moment as the Chelsea goalkeeper was forced to keep it out with feet.
The home side, who lost Ashley Cole to injury early on, struggled to make any inroads in the attacking third until late in the half.
Ba had the best sight on goal when he received Hazard’s ball to the right of the box and hit a crisp low shot that David de Gea blocked with his legs.
It was going to take something special for Chelsea to get in behind a well marshaled United defense and within just four minutes of the restart, they and their star of the season, Juan Mata, provided it.
The Spaniard was allowed a little too much time 30 yards from goal and he took full advantage with a delicate ball over the top to catch out Rio Ferdinand and, at full stretch, Ba hooked a fine volley into the far corner past an unmoved De Gea.
A Chelsea goal was always likely to open up the match as United were forced to abandon some of their defensive discipline in search of an equalizer.
And so it proved as United were only denied an equalizer by an outstanding save from Cech. Welbeck whipped in a rasping cross to the far post that was met by the diving Hernandez, whose header looked destined for the far corner, but somehow Cech got just enough of a hand to it to take it onto the roof of the net.
Chelsea were also looking to take advantage of the greater space now afforded them.
But De Gea matched the form of his opposite number and produced an excellent one-handed save to deny Mata’s rising shot at his near post.
Minutes later, Chelsea really should have made it 2-0. Carrick poorly conceded possession under pressure in his defensive third, allowing Hazard to burst between two defenders, but the Belgian dragged his shot wide of the target.
As the half wore on, Ferguson looked to his bench for further attacking inspiration and brought on van Persie. The Dutchman could and should have made a decisive impact too, but crucially he continued the form of his recent scoring drought.
First he side-footed over the bar from a central position just eight yards out and then in injury time from a similar position he headed over to end United’s hopes of a lifting the FA Cup for the first time since 2004.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.