CHELSEA'S Eden Hazard has apologised for kicking a ballboy who was preventing him from retrieving the ball in the League Cup semi-final against Swansea City last night.
Swansea, who won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg, held on for a goalless draw at Liberty Stadium to set up a final against Bradford City but the main talking point was the bizarre altercation that led to the Chelsea midfielder's red card 12 minutes from time.
Belgian Hazard said he had not intended to boot the ballboy.
"The boy put his whole body on to the ball and I was just trying to kick the ball and I think I kicked the ball and not the boy," Hazard told Chelsea TV, according to the club's official website.
"I apologise. The ballboy came in the changing room and we had a quick chat and I apologised and the boy apologised as well, and it is over. Sorry."
But the ball boy appears to have taken part in the match with the intention of time wasting.
One pre-match tweet on his account reads: "The king of all ball boys is back making his final appearance #needed #for #timewasting."
Since the incident last night, the college student has gained more than 77,000 followers on Twitter - although not all are supportive.
Scores of football fans lambasted the Swans ball boy on the social networking site, with site user Matt Craig tweeting: "Just saw Hazard red card, to be honest the ball boy deserved it."
Others leapt to his defence, with Twitter user Lewis Payne saying the youngster had "done exactly what (former Chelsea player) Drogba was doing for 5 years".
Natalie Taylor wrote: "Hazard kicking a ball boy. No excuse. All ball boys are told to slow the game if the home side are winning."
But Swans fan James Hopkin noted: "So, its the first time in our 100 year history that we make the final and Charlie Morgan steals all the attention!"
Britiish Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he believed both the player and the ball boy were at fault.
Asked about the controversy during his weekly phone-in on LBC Radio, he said: "My early judgment is, this is going to sound like painful fence-sitting, but I think they are both at fault.
"Hazard absolutely should not have done what he did, that was absolutely out of order. Benitez has been clear on that. But the ball boy did seem to kind of cover the ball, which is frustrating for a player."
The red card shown by referee Chris Foy will lead the 22-year-old Hazard to be banned for three games, though there may be scope for that sanction to be extended.
"They have apologised to each other," Chelsea's interim manager Rafael Benitez said. "They knew they were both wrong. He (the ballboy) was wasting time. Hazard wanted to get the ball back quickly and he was kicking. They both made mistakes.
"We will deal with this internally. He was frustrated and just wanted to get the ball back, but we will analyse it and see what happens."
Premier League players reacted to the incident on social media with Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand condemning the Belgian's actions, while Stoke striker Michael Owen felt both parties were to blame.
"I'm not the authorities but in my eyes it's a red for all those asking. Us players do put refs in bad spots at times unfortunately!" Ferdinand tweeted.
"Both the kid and Hazard were in the wrong. Not having Hazard tried to hurt him though. He just tried to toe poke it out of his grip," former England forward Owen wrote on his Twitter feed.
Tottenham winger and Wales international Gareth Bale was more sympathetic towards the player, also taking time to congratulate the Welsh side's achievement of securing a first appearance in a major domestic cup final.
"Unbelievable decision by the referee to send Hazard off but congrats to Swansea. Who'd have predicted this final?!" Bale tweeted.