A Wembley Stadium bathed in glorious sunshine was the stage for this season’s FA Cup Final between Antonio Conte’s Chelsea and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. And a match between 2 of the Premier League’s more defensive sides was more exciting nail biting affair than had been expecting.
Both sides and managers went into this final with a lot to prove. Defending champions Chelsea have laboured through a difficult season and have missed out on Champions League qualification. Manchester United did amass 81 points which has been enough to win the title in previous seasons, but their style of play has been much criticised from punters and supporters.
Speculation has been rife that this will be Antonio Conte’s last match in charge at Chelsea and he would love to leave having finally won his first cup competition as a manager. Mourinho himself was relishing the opportunity to beat his Italian counterpart and his former side in the season ending showpiece.
The side that did not win this final would end their season trophy less and that would be a huge disappointment for either of these illustrious clubs.
Antonio Conte kept with his preferred 3-5-2 and picked what he believes is his strongest XI. The only surprise was that Andreas Christensen had sustained a slight back strain and so his place on the bench was given to Trevoh Chalobah. So Thibaut Courtois, Antonio Rudiger, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko all started.
The big team news for Mourinho was that Romelu Lukaku was deemed not fit enough to start and he joined the substitute’s bench. The Red Devils kept with a 4-3-3 formation led by Marcus Rashford, flanked by Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard, although they did regularly inter change. Also of note was Ander Herrera being given his favourite role of man marking Eden Hazard.
During the early stages the Chelsea talisman managed to find enough space, despite the closeness of Herrera, that The Blues were able to gain the initiative from the opening cagey exchanges. The Belgian managed to cut through on the left and forced David De Gea into a smart save at his near post.
But then on 22 minutes, a simple through ball from Fabregas allowed Hazard to sprint past a hesitant Phil Jones who only managed to catch up in the penalty area. The defender’s clumsy attempted challenge allowed the Belgian to convert from the spot and a deserved lead was gained.
What then followed epitomised both managers and their football style this season. The Red Devils struggled to get into any real rhythm while a determined and resolute Chelsea defence were resilient for the rest of the match.
With Herrera almost playing as an extra defender thanks to his man marking duties, and the United attack missing a true target man in Lukaku, Mourinho’s side stuttered in their creating and finishing of chances.
Courtois and his defence were imperious and they were helped by outstanding midfield protection duties by N’Golo Kante. While Manchester United were on the front foot for the whole of the second half, The Blues as a collective unit kept them out.
But the main difference was the performance of the biggest players. While Pogba and Sanchez lacked some cohesion, belief and an extra gear, Hazard and Kante excelled in their duties for the team.
They were helped by a very good supporting cast. Courtois and Rudiger were immense in defence, Bakayoko was effective, Fabregas created and Alonso, Moses and Giroud worked tirelessly.
It was never going to be a classic final but Chelsea shone brighter in a tight resolute tie. There set up, style and execution was exactly what Conte had in mind. It meant a side who have regularly been beaten by lesser teams throughout this season, were able to step up on the biggest occasion against the biggest of opponents and be victorious.
Conte’s demeanour, comments and tactics may have upset Chelsea supporters but the Italian has guided the club to another trophy and he very much did it his way. Fifth in the league, last 16 of the Champions League, semi finals of the League Cup and winning the FA Cup represents quite a high level of success.
And now all Chelsea supporters have another reason for celebrating on 19 May – 2 FA Cups and 1 Champions League is an incredible return. The Blues are now joint third of FA Cup winners of all time. Let’s hope the run of 7 in the last 21 years continues.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue