5 Things Manchester United Have to Do to Beat Chelsea in the FA Cup
When the referee blew the whistle for full time in Manchester United and Chelsea's 2-2 draw in the last eight of the FA Cup, there's a high probability that neither set of fans or players were particularly happy with the result.
In what has already been an extremely fixture-heavy month for both the European Champions and the Red Devils, a replay at Stamford Bridge was the last thing that either side would have wanted.
The match could have been settled in the first half an hour, with United storming into a two-goal lead and Chelsea seemingly unable to get a decent shot away at David de Gea's net. When Wayne Rooney's shot was parried up by Petr Cech, only for David Luiz to nearly header it back into his own goal, the big Czech goalkeeper kept his side in the tournament.
As it was, from this moment on there seemed to be an unstoppable resurgence from Chelsea, who were saved from a quarter-final exit by second-half super-sub Eden Hazard.
In fact it was United who eventually found themselves holding out for the draw, with De Gea forced into one of his trademark spectacular "foot saves" late into stoppage time.
On April 1, these two giants of the English game will come face to face once again; this time there has to be a winner.
But with home advantage now favouring the London Blues, what can Sir Alex and his men do to ensure the victory?
Score the First Goal
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Manchester United made a habit of coming from behind to snatch all three points in the league for the most part of the first half of this years Premier League campaign.
It was, to say the least, an incredibly exciting time to be a United fan—albeit a stressful and somewhat aggravating one. Week after week the Red Devils would fall behind to weaker opposition, only for Robin van Persie and Co. to turn on the skill and save United from humiliation.
However, perhaps more positively for United fans, whenever the Red Devils have scored the first goal in a match against one of these sides, they have gone on to win every game—with the one exception of the 1-1 draw with Tottenham at White Harte Lane back in January (and even then it took a 90th-minute equaliser from Clint Dempsey to break that streak).
Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney's early strikes against Chelsea at Old Trafford were exactly what United needed in the weekend's match. Perhaps it didn't secure the result as it has done so many times in the league this season, but that was through no fault of the United offence.
If the Red Devils want to make it into the semi-finals this year, then they need to strike the first blow in London.
Keep Eden Hazard Quiet
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It must have been a bitter pill for the United fans to swallow as they saw the man who had initially been top of Fergie's summer transfer targets come on and have such a devastating impact against them.
Eden Hazard's introduction into the match truly was, as cliche as it sounds, the turning point in the cup tie, and it has resulted in the necessity of a replay.
Aside from his perfectly taken strike to the top right-hand corner of the net, Hazard looked like the world-class playmaker that many had touted him to be during his time at French side Lille.
The Belgian has been somewhat inconsistent since his arrival at Chelsea—starting the season superbly before quietly tailing off into bench-warming obscurity.
It seems as though he has hit another purple patch, however, with the world-class performance put in against United backed up midweek in the Europa League against Steaua Bucuresti.
If United want any chance of making it past the current cup holders, then their best bet is to keep this man out of the game as much as humanly possible.
This is, of course, assuming that Hazard will be started from the outset. The FA Cup doesn't seem to carry the same prestige it once did, and with Chelsea battling for a Champions League place, it may even be the case that in lieu of his recent good form, Benitez will rest Hazard for upcoming league fixtures.
However, if he does start, then United will have to be aware of his impact from the first minute to the last.
Don't Concede Early Goals
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Anyone could tell you that conceding early on into a match is never a good thing, but it is especially imperative against a team like Chelsea that it doesn't happen if United wish to advance.
Since the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003 at the club, Chelsea have forged a dynasty around their ability to hold onto a lead.
Unquestionably, in recent years that particular aspect of their game has somewhat given way to actually attempting to outplay their opposition, as opposed to parking the bus and desperately holding on for a 1-0 victory.
However, this is still Chelsea, and with the FA Cup being the only major (domestic) trophy still potentially up for grabs, don't be surprised to see a return to this all too familiar tactic if they do score an early goal or two.
It's completely unfair to still label the Blues as a team that sits back and puts 10 men behind the ball after going ahead, but it hasn't been unknown in some of their recent performances.
Against Barcelona last season in the Champions League this type of display was what would eventually go on to see Roberto Di Matteo's men take their first-ever European crown.
On April 1 we could see a similar kind of performance if United fall behind early on.
Dominate the Midfield
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Chelsea arguably possess one of the most lethal midfields not only in England, but on a global scale in world football at the moment.
Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Frank Lampard and the ever-improving Ramires and John Obi Mikel are all players that would genuinely challenge for a spot in the United first XI (in fact, with the possible exception of Mikel, most would probably stroll right in).
In the first 30 minutes at Old Trafford, United did a brilliant job of keeping the football and pressuring the Chelsea midfielders whenever they did have possession themselves.
Mata looked completely lost and was constantly closed down before he had time to find a teammate in the heavily packed centre of the park.
It was only with the introduction of star man Hazard that things began to open up for the Blues, with the game becoming more stretched, allowing Mata, Ramires and, of course, Hazard himself to find a lot of space and pass the ball around the helpless defence.
The tight marking and ruthless aggression shown at the start of the match is something that needs to be consistently demonstrated in the return fixture if United want a chance of winning.
Michael Carrick will also, as ever, play a crucial role in proceedings. Against Reading on Saturday it was more than apparent how badly the United midfield was lacking his presence, as the team in the relegation zone often looked like threatening the would-be-champions through the centre of the park.
This cannot be allowed to happen against a team that will punish United in those areas (unlike Reading).
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I was shocked to see Robin van Persie omitted from the team sheet at Old Trafford. Yes, as I previously stated, the FA Cup doesn't quite carry the same stigma that it once did in England, but against a side like Chelsea it just seemed incredibly disrespectful and a tad foolish.
It would be understandable if the Red Devils had a tricky Premier League or Champions League fixture ahead of them—but with their defeat to Real Madrid and an "easy" home game against Reading ahead of them, leaving him out of the side made little sense to me.
Perhaps it was a message to the media and other clubs that Rooney really isn't out of favour with the club at the moment (of course he isn't, why would he be?).
Whatever the case, it just struck me as an odd move this late on into the competition against a side of Chelsea's calibre.
Fans could easily argue that without RVP the team went into a 2-0 lead, and after he was brought on (with the score at 2-1) things only got worse.
But this is Van Persie we're talking about—for your biggest games of the season you should be playing your best players. That's a mantra that has been preached by Sir Alex more over the years than any other top-flight coach.
It does suggest, then, that perhaps Sir Alex really doesn't care at all about the FA Cup. I'm not sure how to feel about this. Certainly most, if not all United fans rate the Premier League and Champions League ahead of the FA Cup, but does that mean it should be disregarded as a competition in itself altogether? I don't think so—particularly after the loss to Madrid and with the league now (seemingly) all wrapped up.
Van Persie is one of the best in the world, and he should start against Chelsea to give United their optimum chance of winning the double this year.
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