Chelsea produced a stirring second-half comeback to earn a replay with Manchester United at Stamford Bridge after a thrilling 2-2 result in their FA Cup quarterfinal at Old Trafford on Sunday.
United looked poised for a comfortable passage into the semifinals as they raced into a two-goal advantage inside 11 minutes against as beleaguered Chelsea side through strikes from Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney.
But, helped by Rafael Benitez’s substitutions, the rhythm of the match reversed completely in the second half and Chelsea struck back through Eden Hazard and Ramires. Such was the Blues dominance after the break that they may well feel disappointed not to have claimed the victory at the first time of asking, especially after David de Gea produced a miraculous save from Juan Mata in injury time.
It has been a remarkable turnaround in a match that will live long in the memory.
Sir Alex Ferguson has enjoyed such a long and successful tenure at Old Trafford in large part due to his ability to rebound from disappointments and the speed at which he appeared to have picked up his players here from the loss to Real Madrid was startling.
United came haring out of the blocks and had Chelsea under pressure almost from the first whistle. Chelsea had endured their own midweek disappointment and still appeared to be suffering the effects of their trip to Bucharest as the home side took the lead inside five minutes.
Michael Carrick was the architect with a sublime lofted pass from just inside the opposition half that found Hernandez breaking beyond the Chelsea back line and the Mexican, starting in place of Robin van Persie, met it with an inventive lofted header over Petr Cech and into the far corner.
United were not in any mood to calm their onslaught. It was perhaps inevitable that after all the speculation and denials following his exclusion against Madrid that Rooney would get on the scoresheet.
He did so in unlikely fashion, as he swung in a teasing free-kick from the left that a desperately deep Chelsea defense failed to deal with and the ball traveled all the way through to sneak in past Cech at the back post.
Looking to all-but finish the tie early, United could and probably should have been 3-0 up before the half-hour mark. First Hernandez shot over at the near post having been found by Nani following a scintillating burst by the Portuguese winger.
Rooney too could have had a second. This time the threat came down the left as Patrice Evra pulled the ball back to the penalty spot for Rooney, but he shot straight at Cech.
Let off the hook, Chelsea were able to gather some composure in the latter stages of the first half and might have pulled a goal back but Victor Moses fired waywardly off target following a neat flick by Juan Mata.
The visitors would continue their momentum at the start of the second period and began to turn the tide. The decision of Rafael Benitez to bring on John Mikel Obi and Eden Hazard shortly after the break proved a crucial intervention by the Chelsea boss, who was still taunted throughout by the traveling support.
With Mikel a lynchpin in the midfield, Hazard was a particular threat going forward and it was he that got Chelsea back into the contest in the 59th minute. The Belgian was found toward the corner of the area by Mata and, with Rafael failing to close him down, he curled a stunning strike into the far corner past an unmoved De Gea.
The goal gave Chelsea a further edge and it was now the visitors that were dominating as United had done in the opening period.
With United unable to stem the tide, Chelsea drew level in the 68th minute. A delightful flowing move saw the ball worked across the field to Ramires on the right edge of the box and Brazilian took a clever touch inside before finishing into the far corner with his left foot.
The goal lifted United somewhat from their second-half slumber and, with the introduction off the bench of Robin van Persie, the match became a thrilling end-to-end spectacle in the closing stages.
If there was to be a winner, though, Chelsea looked likeliest to provide it. In stark contrast from how they began the match, United were the side hanging on in the remaining minutes. Chelsea came so close to a winner too, De Gea had to pull off several saves, by far the most notable being a stunning stop to turn Mata’s close-range effort wide with his leg.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.