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Manchester United, Chelsea square off

 
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MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

Manchester United’s season hit another bump tonight as they tossed away a two-goal lead to give Chelsea a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup quarterfinals. The two teams now face an unwanted replay in London – but United will be the unhappier of the two.

United had taken the lead thanks to two early goals from Chicharito and Wayne Rooney, but a lackadaisical second half – and some inspired changes by under-pressure Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez – switched the tone of the game and gave the Blues a way back in.

“We feel like we could have won the match,” said Benitez afterwards. “We knew anything could happen in the second half, but I saw the character and reaction I expected [from the team].”

The date of the replay in London has yet to be determined, but the winner of that match will face a blockbuster semifinal: either United or Chelsea will play Manchester City.

It will be noted, with some bitterness, that Nani was again at the heart of the matter. Tuesday, he was ejected from their Champions League knockout round game; tonight he hobbled off just before the end of the second half. United struggled in both games without him. His replacement tonight, Antonio Valencia, never looked confident or in form, and with Nani’s speed and threat removed, United went to seed.

“We’re lucky to still be in FA Cup,” said Sir Alex Ferguson after the match. “We ran out of legs. Our full backs, Rafael and Evra, are just knackered.”

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At first, it looked like the Red Devils were going to punish Chelsea for their European midweek misadventure. They got off to a dream start when Chicharito put United ahead after just five minutes with a goal out of nothing. Michael Carrick chipped a little ball over a Chelsea back line that simply switched off, and Chicharito nodded a looping header over Gary Cahill, and a despairing Peter Cech. The keeper had been caught in no-man’s land but there can be no doubt of the quality of the goal, which seemed to hang in the air forever before tucking in, to the delight of the Stretford End.

Rooney would then collect a second goal just six minutes later when Victor Moses conceded a silly foul on Nani, allowing a free kick to the left side and just outside the area. Rooney powered the kick over the wall, off David Luiz’ hair, and past Cech at the far post.

United should have had another minutes later when Rooney forced a save from Cech that saw the ball parried on to David Luiz – and nearly back into his own net. Cech had to make a smart save to palm the ball out and over to preserve the scoreline.

But from there, United seemed to lose its way and the game became sloppy and imprecise. That is, until the 55th minute introduction of Eden Hazard and John Obi Mikel.

The Belgian made an immediate impact, firing a sweeping ball past David De Gea to the right post after Rafael inexplicably game him time and space. It signaled a change in the pace of the game as United found themselves increasingly compressed and unable to break. In fact, Cech had very little work to do in the second half at all, with only half-chances and frustrating misses to trouble him.

Ramires would tie the game up on a classic counter. David Luiz started the play with a sweeping ball out the Demba Ba at midfield. Feeding Oscar on the overlap, the Brazilian touched on to his countryman wide right. Ramires coolly took a touch, jinked past Jonny Evans and fired to the left side of a helpless De Gea.

It was the Stretford End’s turn to be nervous and as the clock ticked down, and it looked increasingly like the game was Chelsea’s to win. De Gea was tested over and over again and with United unable to break the pressure, it seemed like the Red Devils would suffer another loss in a week.

But true to form, the man booed by both sides of the crowd would waste the winner. Fernando Torres, a late sub, failed to convert an excellent chance at the end of the match after Oscar had done all the heavy lifting. The disconsolate Spaniard was greeted at the whistle by his manager, clearly doing damage control, but Torres looks like a lost cause.

There are many questions for United to answer after this game. Is Nani that irreplaceable? Is Robin van Persie’s slump in form a harbinger of things to come? And was this week a turning point in their season? We shall soon see.

Elsewhere, Millwall and Blackburn played to a dour 0-0 draw at the Den that will see a quick replay scheduled for Wednesday; the winner of that match faces Wigan.

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