Sunday 15 September 2019

Stephen Hunt: If this was duo's last match for Chelsea, they signed off in style

Chelsea's Eden Hazard with manager Antonio Conte giving instructions. Photo: David Klein/Reuters
Chelsea's Eden Hazard with manager Antonio Conte giving instructions. Photo: David Klein/Reuters

Stephen Hunt

Will Chelsea's two FA Cup winners still be at Stamford Bridge next season or have Eden Hazard and Antonio Conte said farewell? If they have signed off at Wembley, the pair have done it in style.

Conte needed to win the Premier League and the Champions League to remain a Roman Abramovich employee and he knew that when he started this season. The FA Cup might not be enough to keep his job. Or the wonderful Hazard.

It has been a strange couple of months for Hazard. He has not always played in his best position, which is as the number 10, and he looked thoroughly fed up with life at Chelsea when he was played as the centre-forward against Manchester City last month. The writing looked on the wall that night.

Hazard is one player who wouldn't look out of place at Real Madrid or Barcelona and, with Chelsea missing out on Champions League football again next season, you can understand why he has stated he is anxious to see which players will be coming into Stamford Bridge in the summer. If they can't deliver, he will surely be on his way.

It was no surprise to me that Hazard started as the number 10 yesterday evening and Olivier Giroud was preferred to Alvaro Morata as the nine. Although the French striker is not going to get round the pitch for 90 minutes, and was withdrawn for Morata late on, he is better able to hold the ball up and stretch the defence so Hazard can work in the spaces. And Giroud is a big-game player who you just knew was going to turn up yesterday and prove a nuisance to United's defenders.

That number-10 role allows Hazard the freedom to wander and pick up the second pieces from Giroud or, as we saw with the opening goal, make the runs from deep at the United defence. He shifts into positions which make him very difficult to mark and I did feel for Ander Herrera, who has handed the unenviable task of man-marking the skilful Belgian. He looked overawed by the occasion and the task, and there were times when he just could not live with Hazard.

It also meant United were a man down going forward as a result of his man-to-man role but, when the shackles were released a little, it was Herrera who created their first real opening just before the hour which resulted in a weak effort from Paul Pogba.

Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the two weak links in Mourinho's starting XI and are always capable of that split-second lack of concentration which will cost their team a goal. The spot-kick itself was a touch of class and a nonchalant, cool finish from Hazard. It was classy, like the man himself when he is in the mood.

How did Jones stay on the pitch when he brought Hazard down for the penalty? My immediate reaction was that referee Michael Oliver bottled it and it had to be a red card, but it was the right decision because Jones made a genuine attempt to win the ball.

It was a very bad attempt, but it was not a deliberate foul. And it also kept the game alive with 11 v 11 on the pitch. And it was all the better for it.

With these two sides, whoever scored the first goal was always going to make it difficult for their opponents to get back in the game, but United did not help themselves for long periods. They were slow and predictable and their set-pieces were poor and the Chelsea back three were comfortable for most of the first half, although a couple of half-chances fell to Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford in that time.

Mourinho clearly tried to rouse his troops at half-time and they did have even more possession but Chelsea were so well-organised and disciplined at the back, with N'Golo Kante providing the steel to steal the ball and frustrate United. When he was needed, Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois made two vital saves. I'm pleased for Conte and if it is goodbye, it's not a bad way to go.

It used to be the case that no-one would dream of having a wedding on FA Cup final day. But even FA president Prince William must have shrugged his shoulders when he saw it was a Manchester United-Chelsea final. They are not exactly the most exciting teams in England at the moment but they produced a good spectacle in the Wembley sunshine and Chelsea even managed to keep the game open after they had gone ahead.

There was probably more style and bigger names up the road at Windsor for the wedding. I still can't understand why I didn't get an invitation.

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