Sunday 19 August 2018

Hazard adds silver lining for Conte

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0

Eden Hazard slots a penalty past David De Gea for the only goal of the game
Eden Hazard slots a penalty past David De Gea for the only goal of the game

Daniel Taylor

If this turns out to be Antonio Conte's final game as Chelsea manager, as all the evidence suggests, at least he has gone out on a high. For all the politics at Stamford Bridge, all the discontentment and the impression of a manager who knows his time is up, another trophy has been added to the collection. Last year, the Premier League, this season, the FA Cup; only at Chelsea, perhaps, could a manager with that haul now be cut free.

A parting of the ways feels like a fait accompli even though Chelsea have just won the eighth FA Cup of their history, an achievement that moves them level with Tottenham Hotspur in third place on the all-time list. Conte looked happy for the first time in a long while and, on this evidence, Chelsea surely cannot allow Eden Hazard to contemplate following him.

Hazard's first-half penalty was the difference between the two sides and the Belgian certainly chose a good day to have one of his better performances of the season.

Chelsea had to withstand some concerted second-half pressure, but José Mourinho's team lacked finesse in the important areas. In many ways, it has been the story of Manchester United's season. They have finished without any silverware and this was another occasion when it was obvious, whatever slant Mourinho wants to put on it, that United are still a long way short from being a top team. Or, at least, the team they were in happier times.

The disappointing part was the lack of refinement from the two teams that finished second and fifth in the Premier League, featuring some of the more celebrated players in English football's top division. The game hotted up in the second half, but it was a disappointing spectacle at times, lacking any real sophistication and a reminder, perhaps, of why it always had the feel of a papering-over-the-cracks final. United finished 19 points behind Manchester City, with Chelsea 30 adrift of the top, and nobody could have left Wembley thinking that the gulf felt like a deception.

These should be the moments when category-A players such as Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez have a clear influence. Instead, it took a long time before United found any cohesion in the attacking positions and Hazard was always the most dangerous player. Hazard's speed and trickery is nothing new, but the most impressive part of his performance was his absolute determination that the final should not pass him by. Unfortunately for Mourinho, the same could not be said of some of his front players.

Manchester United's Antonio Valencia and Chelsea's Marcos Alonso. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Manchester United's Antonio Valencia and Chelsea's Marcos Alonso. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Hazard's contribution was impressive for the fact he had Ander Herrera in close proximity throughout most of the match. Herrera has been deployed in this role against Hazard before, including one occasion when it led to the United player being shown a red card. He stuck to his task diligently, quick over the ground and strong in the tackle, but Hazard's elusive qualities will always make him a dangerous opponent to track.

In the 21st minute, he drifted away from his usual position on the left side of Chelsea's attack to move to the inside-right channel. This time, Herrera left Phil Jones to deal with him and there was already evidence to suggest the United centre-half was having one of his more accident-prone performances. Jones is too often liable to these kind of calamities. His first mistake was to back off as Cesc Fàbregas curled the ball to his team-mate. Hazard came for the ball, his first touch left Jones stranded, and United were in trouble as soon as the Chelsea player started picking up speed.

Conte was enraged that Jones avoided being sent off for the flailing, desperate challenge that brought down Hazard inside the penalty area. It was a clear penalty and the referee, Michael Oliver, was surrounded by Chelsea players wanting to know why it was not a red card. Conte still looked incensed even after Hazard had expertly rolled the penalty to David De Gea's left, but it was correct for Oliver to deem it a booking if he thought Jones had made a legitimate attempt to play the ball.

In that case, the regulations state referees ought to show a yellow card, regardless of whether it denies a goalscoring opportunity.

Chelsea's Marcos Alonso lifts the trophy as they celebrate winning the FA Cup. Photo: David Klein/Reuters
Chelsea's Marcos Alonso lifts the trophy as they celebrate winning the FA Cup. Photo: David Klein/Reuters

After that, United had little choice but to start playing more adventurously, but it was not until the opening 10 minutes of the second half that they started to pin back their opponents.

The width was provided by their full-backs, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, and it needed a fine save from Thibaut Courtois to prevent Jones from equalising with a header from Marcus Rashford's free-kick. Sánchez turned in the rebound but he had strayed marginally offside in the process and the linesman's flag cut short the celebrations.

Not long afterwards, Courtois had to dash off his goalline to deny Rashford and that was the point of the match, with 73 minutes gone, when Mourinho brought on Romelu Lukaku as a substitute.

Lukaku had not been deemed fit enough to start because of the ankle injury that has kept him out recently and he struggled to have any real impact. Antonio Rudiger, in particular, stood out in Chelsea's defence. Gary Cahill has rediscovered his best form and, in the closing minutes, when an onslaught might have been expected, Conte's men were largely untroubled.

Chelsea celebrate winning the final with the trophy. Photo: David Klein/Reuters
Chelsea celebrate winning the final with the trophy. Photo: David Klein/Reuters

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