Chelsea dumped Manchester United out of the FA Cup to set up a mouthwatering semi-final clash against Manchester City.
A brilliantly constructed and executed Demba Ba volley was the difference between the two heavyweights as Rafael Benitez’s team triumphed 1-0 in the quarter-final replay.
As expected, both managers made wholesale changes to the teams that started in league clashes less than 48 hours previously.
Sir Alex trumped Benitez in the rotation stakes by bringing in seven new players to the Chelsea manager’s six, although Wayne Rooney was surprisingly not one of them.
The forward was omitted from the United match-day squad with what Sir Alex claimed was a groin injury picked up on England duty. David De Gea, Chris Smalling, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia were the only United players to start both Saturday’s 1-0 win at Sunderland and then again today.
Benitez notably dropped John Terry, Frank Lampard and Fernando Torres to the bench, as he significantly reshuffled his attacking options, with Ramires, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Demba Ba restored to the team, along with David Luiz and Ashley Cole.
Before the match began, there was the chance for both sets of supporters to vent their feelings towards Ferdinand, returning to the pitch for the first time since his withdrawal from England’s World Cup qualifiers.
The defender was roundly jeered by the home fans at the end of the warm-ups, again when the teams were read out shortly before kick-off and then whenever he touched the ball as the match began. The large United contingent responded on nearly every occasion with chants of ‘Rio, Rio, Rio’.
Sir Alex sprung a tactical surprise with Phil Jones anchoring alongside Carrick, Tom Cleverely tucked in on the left of midfield and Antonio Valencia deployed at right-back with Nani in front of him.
Even without Jones providing extra screening, Benitez had warned that it simply would not be possible to have a classic because of the demands on the players, and so it initially proved as both sides struggled to settle into a rhythm.
Chelsea were forced into an early change after Ashley Cole pulled up with a hamstring injury while chasing Danny Welbeck. He looked in severe pain as he hobbled off, to be replaced by Ryan Bertrand.
It took half-an-hour for the game’s first real opening, which came when Hazard played in Ba on the right. The striker shot powerfully to De Gea’s near post, but the United keeper was alert and smartly kept it out.
Hazard looked the most likely player to conjure an opening. Running with the ball from the left, he skipped past Jones and shared a one-two with Oscar before smashing his shot narrowly over the bar.
Petr Cech nearly became the victim of a hopeful Javier Hernandez long-ranger. It did not wobble in the air as much as the goalkeeper’s reaction suggested, but the captain’s blushes were saved by his out-stretched right leg.
Chelsea had ended the first period marginally in charge and took control early in the second through a superbly constructed goal that blew the cobwebs off what had been a tepid encounter.
Mata seemingly had few options when he picked up the ball in a central area in the middle of the United half. But the Spaniard’s feet are in perfect sync with his sharp football brain, and he picked out Ba’s run with a perfectly weighted chipped pass.
The Senegalese had plenty to do but, crucially, had the technique to match his confidence. A brilliant first-time hooked finish on the volley surprised De Gea as much as onlookers to put Chelsea ahead.
United responded with typical vigour. Hernandez inspired one of the saves of the season from Cech with a diving header that had looked destined for the net. Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs were then sent on in place of ineffective pair Tom Cleverley and Nani to save United’s FA Cup campaign.
Hazard gave United a let-off after 67 minutes when he burst into the penalty area following a mistake from Carrick only to shoot a yard wide of the goal.
It prompted a flurry of opportunities for the hosts, but their finishing did not match their approach play as, time and again, chances sailed above and either side of the woodwork.
Mata ran the show late on but, despite late United pressure, the hosts survived without the security of a second goal.