It turned out to be yet another game of football where the team which scored first would win the match. At a full house Stamford Bridge, it was Antonio Conte's Chelsea which spoiled Jose Mourinho's return to his old base by knocking defending champions Manchester United out of the FA Cup with a narrow 1-0 win in the quarter-final.
With the win, Conte maintained a 100 percent record over Mourinho, having humiliated him 4-0 at home in latter's visit in October. However, in the lead-up to the game, the Italian was wary of United's form and offensive style of play, aside from the fact that they would be handicapped without the likes of top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial. Teenager Marcus Rashford played as the lone striker with Henrikh Mkhitaryan behind him for support.
To begin with, Chelsea took some time to settle as United were solid and energetic in the first 10 minutes. It looked like Mourinho had found the formula to stop Conte's successful system by playing a high-pressing game. Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera and Rashford had most of the final third covered while Cesar Azpilicueta needed David Luiz's help to stop United's attack. Soon, the London club began to spread the play through midfield general Nemanja Matic, and the fans were in for a refreshingly even contest. The game, however, was sparked with a bit of controversy just after the half-hour mark. In the 36th minute, Herrera made a silly challenge to get his second booking, having been served a yellow card earlier in the 20th minute, undeservedly for a foul on Eden Hazard. Since then, it was a completely different game for the Blues.
After the red card chaos, Mkhitaryan had to sacrifice himself as Marouane Fellaini made his way on the pitch to partner Paul Pogba, who sat deeper despite his primary role being orchestrating the midfield. What the change did give birth to was a new battle in the midfield - Pogba vs Kante.
Although Kante and Pogba are different players, their work-rate and link-up in the middle make the difference. Kante is more of a defensive dynamo, protecting the backline. On the other hand, Pogba is a midfielder who can play on the left or provide a magical performance in a free role in a three-man midfield.
It is difficult to overlook the fact that Pogba was outnumbered after starting the game well alongside Herrera. In fact, Mourinho deployed a 3-4-3 (6-2-1 after a man down) formation aided with high man-marking. Pogba was assigned to stop Hazard, and later Kante, from creating goal-scoring opportunities for Diego Costa. However, with 10 men, five at the back and Fellaini as his midfield companion, it looked like it was too much to ask for. Pogba was nowhere to be seen and his invisibility has caused a headache among the Old Trafford faithful. For many, it was easy to single out the Frenchman against Chelsea but he was limited by the red card. But this wasn't the first game where he was anonymous. There are many in the same direction and rare moments of brilliance.
— Karl Matchett (@karlmatchett) March 13, 2017
In comparison, at Juventus, he played for a winning team so his flaws weren't as obvious but neither was he a fluke. Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio allowed him to move freely and barge on defenders. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly what Kante did with the help of Matic, who allowed the former to break the opposition's play and express himself after Herrera's exit.
"I would go so far as to say N'Golo Kante is the best central midfield player in the world right now. I compared him to Claude Makelele last season, but he's got even more to his game than Makelele," says Frank Lampard.
The lead came through Kante's beautifully struck shot 20 yards from the goal in the 51st minute, which went on to seal the semi-final spot for Chelsea. The 25-year-old dominated the game, bossing the middle of the park. He also distributed key passes around the park with ease. There is a clear contrast between how the French team-mates have progressed into this season. After taking the lead, Chelsea played a balanced game while United continued to play deeper. It was a usual day at the office for David Luiz, who was just solid at the back and had nothing to worry about. Interestingly, more than Kante, it was Matic's influence in the middle of the mark that baffled United players.
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) March 13, 2017
The first-half was equally poised between the two giants, but the second-half was a horror for Mourinho's men. United just about managed to register four touches in Chelsea's penalty area in the latter half.
Despite the loss, there were a few positives for United from the game. The performances of Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones, who man-marked Hazard in the first-half were noteworthy. The midfield invited the pressure with Matteo Darmian busy handling Victor Moses on the left side of the field. Rojo successfully managed to stop Costa and Willian alongside Chris Smalling throughout the 90 minutes.
Mourinho certainly must crack the code and guide Pogba to his best position in the starting eleven. At United, Pogba has the defensive push from Michael Carrick while Herrera reads the game much earlier than Pogba and breaks the play to push the game ahead. But, Pogba's recent performances have been clumsy, something that could be attributed to his £89 million price tag. The real shame, however, is not building a solid midfield around him and that needs to be fixed before it's too late.
For Conte, his emphatic run goes on and Chelsea are on course of claiming more than a Premier League title this season.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Mar 15, 2017 16:26:20 IST