Midway through a thrilling, slightly wild first half at Stamford Bridge Phil Jones could be seen bumping and jouncing into the back of Eden Hazard on the edge of the Chelsea box like a middle-aged man performing an aggressively drunken conga at the office party. As Hazard fell Jones also stood on his hand, no doubt balancing up the throb in Hazard’s right cheek, where Ander Herrera had left his shoulder a few minutes before.
The match facts will reveal that this 1-0 FA Cup quarter final victory was decided by N’Golo Kanté’s clinching goal just after the break, and nudged one way by the red card shown to Herrera towards the end of the first half. But it was fear of Hazard that dominated United’s game plan here, that dominated the active parts of this game, and which led indirectly to both these decisive events.
Even in defeat United will take some heart from their long periods of resistance with 10 men, and from the chances they had to score in the second half. United’s fans will point to the softness of Herrera’s second booking for a weedy, insubstantial trip as Hazard sped away, an act that might in isolation have been just a foul.
But by that stage a tipping point had come. Hazard was upended five times in that opening 40 minutes, victim of the kind of rotational Don Revie-style team-fouling that made for a thrilling, bruising drama in miniature, but which was always treading a dangerous line.
From the start the strategy was clear: get Eden. Mourinho set out to shackle, restrict and generally thwart Hazard’s creative influence at the heart of Chelsea’s attack. It made for an impossibly absorbing passage of play during which Hazard was hunted relentlessly, and also fairly most of the time, but still kept on coming back for more.
In fairness to Mourinho his own attack was seriously depleted. Marcus Rashford made a sudden recovery from illness to fill the vacant striker’s role but even with him United were missing the combined source of 25 of their 39 league goals this season.
Chelsea on the other hand have been a brutal attacking force at this tight, noisy, fun, soon-to-be-razed stadium. Before this game seven straight Stamford Bridge victories since Christmas had brought 23 goals from nine different Chelsea players.
Key to all of this has been Hazard’s sublime creative industry. If Chelsea’s No10 has yet to match the statistical brilliance of his form under Mourinho two years ago, his role and his influence have spread. The defensive structure has been an ideal liberating platform for those fine-honed attacking talents, allowing Hazard to drift and look for space, to become more expressive, more obviously, flashily complete. He plays like a genuine star now.
From the start here Jones set out to follow Hazard across the pitch, his brief to prevent him finding those in-out spaces where he picks the ball up and turns with such wonderful lateral spring. Only one problem here. Knowing what Hazard is about to do is one thing. Doing anything about it is another.
With 14 minutes gone there was the first little trap and spin on the halfway line, the clutching Herrera burnt off with a thrum of the throttle. Moments later Chris Smalling was sent not just the wrong way but down the tunnel, out of the stadium, past the hot dog stand and all the way to the automatic doors of the late night Boots at Fulham Broadway with a deliciously crisp Cruyff turn. Hazard spurted off, cut past another defender and then drew a fine save from David de Gea.
Those two moments changed the game for a while, drawing the crowd to its feet, sending United’s six-man central block a little deeper. With 20 minutes gone Hazard took the ball on the left again and jinked at frightening speed past Jones, Herrera leaving his shoulder in and drawing his first booking.
With 35 minutes gone Jones hacked Hazard down once again near the halfway line, a horribly cynical piece of work. The referee, Michael Oliver, had just spoken to Smalling. Possibly, given Oliver’s instant shake of the head the warning was explicit: next one’s to be a booking. And 30 seconds later the inevitable happened. It was Herrera whose name came up in the tombola, booked again for perhaps the dumbest trip of the night. Hazard made the most of the foul but Herrera had seen it all unfold. He can only really blame himself.
Still the players continued to thud into one another. There was a risible and demeaning exchange between the two managers, Antonio Conte and Mourinho baying at one another like ageing silverbacks while a posse of officials held them at bay. And six minutes into the second half Chelsea scored the game’s only goal after a rare lapse in intensity. Willian played the ball inside to Kanté. He looked up, saw no red shirt in front of him and fired an instant low shot that bobbled into the corner. United missed Herrera in that moment, a casualty of their own bruising game plan, but above all a victim of Hazard’s decisive first-half brilliance.