MANCHESTER UNITED 1 (Fernandes pen 86)
CHELSEA 3 (Giroud 45+10, Mount 47, Maguire og 74)
To borrow from Robert Burns’ famous phrase, the best laid plans of mice, men and managers often go awry, and certainly for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, just about everything that could have gone wrong did just that, as Chelsea swept Manchester United aside to set up a return Wembley visit for another FA Cup final meeting with Arsenal.
To say it was a bad day at the office for Solskjaer is some understatement. United lost their 19-match unbeaten record, their second semi-final this season and centre-back Eric Bailly, who was taken off on a stretcher after two head injuries in the space of three minutes before half-time. The manager also has to consider the future of David De Gea, who added to a growing catalogue of errors as Chelsea ran into a two-goal lead by the time the half-time cuppas were still cooling.
The Spanish keeper was at fault when Olivier Giroud’s flick squirmed through his grip in first-half stoppage time, then failed to hold a straightforward shot from Mason Mount soon after the restart.
A hat-trick of self-inflicted wounds was completed when Harry Maguire put the ball into his own net to make it 3-0 with 15 minutes to go, and although Bruno Fernandes scored his customary penalty in the closing stages, there was never a doubt who would return to Wembley.
Chelsea played United off the park at a near-empty and silent stadium, with Frank Lampard comfortably winning his personal contest with Solskjaer in what was billed as a battle of wits between two bright young managers, club legends as players and still learning their trade as coaches.
Both made significant changes to their teams in terms of personnel and formations, and while Lampard got it spot on, with an almost faultless performance from his side, Solskjaer may well look back on his selection and tactics with regret.
“If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it,” is a well-worn phrase in football, so it was a huge surprise to see Solskjaer’s starting selection, with the in-form Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood dropped to the subs’ bench, three central defenders deployed instead of the flat back four that has been successful for United in recent weeks, and Paul Pogba sacrificed in favour of rookie Brandon Williams, brought in as a left wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation.
It didn’t work, as United lost the fluency and goal threat of recent weeks, and even after Solskjaer was forced to revert to 4-3-3 after Bailly’s unfortunate injury, Chelsea always looked hungrier, more cohesive and more decisive in front of goal.
Lampard has chopped and changed his back four repeatedly since the Premier League restarted, unhappy with a defence that is the tenth worst in the division. But a switch to 3-4-3, with Reece James and Marcos Alonso as wing-backs, paid off spectacularly. No wonder Lampard was beaming afterwards. “It was a system we hadn’t played before, and I was surprised to see them (United) match us up. But even when they changed system, we were even better, and I am really proud of the players today. Their work ethic, a performance full of determination and positivity – I could not have asked for more.”
The game really came to life in an extended first-half stoppage time, after Bailly required extensive treatment on and beside the pitch. The defender’s first clash of heads, in the 38th minute, was with Kurt Zouma as the Chelsea defender tried to head home a cross from Mount, who was irresistible throughout. Bailly soon recovered, but was in more trouble when he and Maguire cracked their skulls together in the 41st minute. Bailly eventually departed on a stretcher, Maguire had his head bandaged and was able to carry on, this time as part of a flat back four.
Perhaps the long delay upset United’s concentration, but they were all at sea as Willian and Cesar Azpilicueta swapped passes, the Chelsea captain crossed from the right, and Giroud nipped in front of Victor Lindelof to flick the ball goalwards with the outside of his boot. De Gea should have held the ball, but it slipped through his hands and crept over the line.
Worse followed two minutes into the second half when Williams hit a poor pass, Mount pounced and shot from 20 yards. It should have been a routine save, but De Gea just fumbled the ball into the net, the fifth time this season he has cost his side a goal with basic errors.
There was no stopping Chelsea. Mount clipped a shot over the bar when he would have been better off shooting straight at De Gea, given the Spaniard’s generosity. He did save well from Giroud in the 75th minute, but the ball was driven back in by Alonso and Maguire could only divert it into his own net.
United had only one effort on goal in the opening hour or so, when Rashford had a free-kick tipped over by Willy Caballero. It was only when Martial and then Greenwood joined him up front that United threatened, and a below-par Fernandes scored from the penalty spot after Callum Hudson-Odoi tripped Martial. But that was far too little, too late, as Solskjaer lamented: “”You always question your decisions. Coming in at half-time one goal down after that long lay off was a big blow for us.
We lost concentration and that was disappointing.”
Sergio Romero has been United’s regular cup keeper, so De Gea’s selection should have been a sign of intent. But his errors cost United dear. “I made the decision to play him and mentally he was ready for it,” continued the manager.
“I can’t speak for his confidence but he is mentally very strong. He knows he should save that one 100 times out of 100 but that’s football for you.”
He added that Bailly had a cut head “but hopefully he will be fine.”
While Chelsea can start thinking about an August 1 rematch of their FA Cup finals with Arsenal from 2002 and 2017,
United face West Ham on Wednesday hoping to set up a final day showdown with Leicester for a Champions League spot, which the Blues are also contesting.
“There is no time to feel sorry for ourselves, we have two games this week and then the Europa League,” added Solskjaer.
“We will get our heads ready and our legs ready and go again.”
But they cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.