“I’m not going to kick anyone when they’re lying down. It’s not my style“, Sir Alex Ferguson had said about Rafa Benitez before the FA Cup clash against Chelsea. That there’s no love lost between the two managers since the time Rafa used to manage Manchester United’s arch rivals Liverpool, is no secret and Ferguson’s refusal to shake the Spaniard’s hand before the game reaffirmed the said fact. After the game, it was Benitez’s turn to overlook his counterpart by heading onto the pitch rather than towards the Scotsman for a customary handshake. “I was waiting – I was waiting at the beginning. Yeah. It’s his decision. I was ready and waiting, I have some education. I was waiting, I have education because I know that a lot of people are watching so I know what I have to do“, Rafa said in the post match conference.
Between all this unnecessary tension, Chelsea had defied the odds to come from two goals down to ultimately being on the cusp of eliminating United from the FA Cup. Rarely this season, especially under Rafa, had the players shown the kind of resolve, grit and determination that famously led to numerous triumphs in the past, most notably in the Champions League last season. They lifted themselves up, dusted themselves off, took charge of their destiny and produced one of the most memorable displays of the season for the Chelsea faithful.
This turnaround in fortunes, in the collective performance, came when it was least expected after 135 minutes of absolutely abysmal football – in the 1-0 loss against Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League and then in the first half against United. The defence had been all over the place, Petr Cech had erred and the combination of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley was proving too hard for Ramires and Lampard to cope with. After the first eleven minutes, the writing was clearly on the wall for Chelsea and Rafa Benitez. However, it wasn’t to be. The inclusion of Eden Hazard and John Obi Mikel had an immediate effect on the proceedings, as the Belgian scored within ten minutes of coming onto the pitch, while Mikel added some much-needed defensive organization to Chelsea’s central midfield.
Even in their approach, the players began pressing from the top and United, who were having a field day in the first half, were suddenly struggling to hold onto the ball. Chelsea had United in the corner for most of the second half, attacking at will and dominating with elan; had it not been for an astonishing save by David de Gea off Juan Mata in the dying moments, Chelsea could very well be heading to the New Wembley to take on Manchester City in the semi-finals. However, considering the entire game, it’s fair that these two teams meet again at Stamford Bridge to decide this duel.
Liverpool fans still fondly remember Rafa Benitez for how his team managed to turn the Champions League final in Istanbul against AC Milan in 2005 on its head after trailing by three goals at half-time. The stakes definitely weren’t that high here – it wasn’t Europe; it wasn’t the final – and Rafa clearly isn’t adored in this part of England, but credit must be given to the man for this performance. He has rarely been praised since taking over at Stamford Bridge and to be fair to everyone, he hasn’t really done enough to deserve that. On Sunday however, his substitutions worked like a charm, and after the half-time break his team, despite playing atrocious football for a game and a half, were able to give United more than a match; they gave them a scare.
On a different note, it’s not merely a coincidence that the players chose to respond to their manager in the FA Cup. Chelsea’s love affair with FA Cup goes back a long way. Having first appeared in an FA Cup final in 1915 against Sheffield United, the West London club had to wait till 1970 to lift the prestigious trophy when they defeated bitter rivals Leeds United in the famous final that took place at Old Trafford. Since then, Chelsea have won the competition 7 times; they were the last club to win the trophy at the Old Wembley in 2000 and the first to achieve the feat at the New Wembley in 2007. So impeccable is their recent record that in the last four seasons, the trophy has come back to Stamford Bridge thrice.
Ergo, it’s hard to say whether it was Rafa who came to FA Cup’s rescue or the other way round, but if the interim manager hopes to land a decent job in the summer and force at least a portion of the fanbase to look back at his tenure with mixed feelings, he must bring this cup home. This may not be their season, but, in the eyes of the fans, this is certainly their cup.
Premier League is, in a way, a lost cause and it’s possible that neither the players nor the fans feel too strongly about the Europa League; however, the FA Cup is special. If Chelsea are to reach yet another final, they must defeat the two teams ahead of them in the league table – Manchester United and Manchester City. If Rafa plays his cards well, he can surely leverage the emotional attachment that this club (fans, players) has for this competition for achieving his other targets (top four finish, Europa League) and finish the season on an emphatic note.