With two moments of Chelsea brilliance went Manchester United's Double dream at Stamford Bridge in a 1-0 defeat. A season that in late February was flirting with a treble is now reduced to a routine march to Premier League title No. 13.
The first was Demba Ba's acrobatic, over-the-shoulder volley to convert Juan Mata's exquisite chip into United's box; the second a remarkable reaction save made by Petr Cech to deny Javier Hernandez's powerful header from close range.
In two flashes of inspiration, a tight match between two of England's heavyweights was decided and differentiated from the ordinary. Chelsea and United's Monday lunchtime meeting was otherwise a contest low on quality, with both teams seemingly struggling to find their rhythm.
The first half saw countless passes misplaced and few chances of note at either end. United's Nani was among the worst culprits—giving away possession cheaply and looking like the player who can sleep through games, rather than the one who can scythe through defences.
David De Gea made a routine save from Ba. Cech was almost embarrassed by a bobbling shot from Hernandez that threatened to beat his dive by going straight down the middle of his goal from 20 yards out.
It said everything about a flat first 45 that the most notable activity was resigned to the stands, with Chelsea fans booing Rio Ferdinand and United's travelling contingent retaliating with barbs in the direction of Blues skipper John Terry, who sat on the substitutes' bench.
Watching on, you felt as if we were watching a game too far. Both teams looked weary and short on ideas, as if the battles of the season so far had taken their toll. It was hard to see where the game would be won, other than in a tired mistake.
But five minutes into the second half, Chelsea revisited their early-season inspiration. Mata's pass toward Ba was on another level to anything we'd seen so far—flighted over the striker and inviting him to swivel away from Ferdinand.
Chelsea's January signing from Newcastle still had much to do. Volleys are hard enough to execute from a standing start, let alone in mid-pivot and with the goal in only your peripheral vision. Ba's delectable finish gave De Gea no chance at all and was a strike worthy of winning the game.
It was only enough, however, thanks to Cech's heroics shortly after. The Chelsea goalkeeper had no right to keep out Hernandez's well-directed header, which was sent back across him and headed for the roof of the night.
His one-handed save was as good as any stop you'll see from a goalkeeper this season, and it proved as decisive as Ba's wonderful winner a few minutes before.
Sir Alex Ferguson went to his bench to bring on Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs soon after, but neither could impart the influence required to take the game to extra time. Van Persie's best chance saw the Dutchman blaze over the bar and his goalless run continue—his last goal for United came against Everton in early February.
Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney didn't even make United's squad after picking up a groin injury on international duty with England.
United missed his drive and purpose. They appeared a team lacking a natural leader at Stamford Bridge, and they were bereft of real quality in the final third. Danny Welbeck and Hernandez both worked tirelessly, but neither could come up with a game-changing moment.
Chelsea found theirs first through the combination of Mata and Ba and then from the fingers of Cech. They conceded the majority of possession but looked the more imaginative going forward and the more likely to strike a killer blow throughout.
The Blues were deserving winners and will go on to face Manchester City in a Wembley semifinal with huge stakes. With either Wigan or Millwall awaiting in the final, both teams will know they stand a big victory away from a glorious chance to lift a major trophy.
City manager Roberto Mancini could badly use the boost. Chelsea's unpopular interim coach Rafa Benitez would dearly love to say goodbye with a triumph to undermine those who have spent the last few months trying so badly to undermine him.
For all their problems this season, Chelsea are still alive in two major competitions, which is one more than both United and City. Were they to win both, you could make the argument Benitez had been a soaring success despite every obstacle put in his way.
United, meanwhile, are left to reflect on a season that promised everything, now reduced to a routine stroll toward the Premier League title they've already won. It's still a huge achievement of course, but that won't stop Ferguson and his players feeling a sense of anticlimax when they ponder what could have been.
The truth of the matter is United are not yet the great team they threatened to become early in the season.
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