Man United 2
Hernandez (44), Park (77)
Wembley is within reach.
Only FC Schalke or Internazionale stand in Manchester United’s way of a fifth European Cup final appearance – and a second on home soil – after the Reds beat Chelsea 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
There were nervy moments, sure, but United were never put under the sort of sustained pressure that was required to crack a Reds side that has looked so solid in Europe this season.
Javier Hernandez put the home side in front just before the interval before Chelsea’s Ramires saw red for a second bookable offence 20 minutes from time. That appeared to extinquish any hopes the Blues had of reaching the last four, until Drogba popped up to equalise against the run of play.
Chelsea’s revival lasted barely a minute, though. Ji-sung Park, so often pivotal in big games, struck the hammer blow, chesting down Giggs’ pass inside the area before rifling a left-footed shot into the far corner.
Earlier, both managers had sprung surprises when the teams were announced an hour before kick-off. Drogba, Chelsea’s biggest threat over the two legs, had to make do with a place on the bench, while Nani was recalled by Sir Alex Ferguson at the expense of Antonio Valencia.
United’s other change came at right back. Rafael, who limped out of last week’s first leg after sustaining a knee injury, failed a late fitness test. John O’Shea stepped into the breach.
Both teams enjoyed spells of early possession, although neither carved out a presentable chance until 14 minutes when Fernando Torres teed up Nicolas Anelka on the edge of the area and the Frenchman skewed his shot just wide of the post. That was the cue for a flurry of action.
Wayne Rooney let fly from 35 yards with a volley that swerved wickedly but ultimately nestled in Petr Cech’s arms before Frank Lampard forced Edwin van der Sar into a smart save when he side-footed goalwards from 18 yards.
Before that, Edwin van der Sar had bravely rushed off his line to claim the ball at Ramires’ feet and Fernando Torres had glanced a header wide from a Nicolas Anelka cross, while Ji-sung Park and Javier Hernandez had both spread panic in the Chelsea penalty area.
The visitors, knowing only a win would see them through to the semi-final stage, played with litte fear and Ramires and Lampard, in particular, sought to drive forward from midfield at every opportunity. And so the Reds were often camped just outside the penalty area, defending in two banks of four, while Hernandez stayed furthest forward and Rooney dropped in the hole.
For all the defending United were forced to do early on, though, it was the Reds who found the net first, Javier Hernandez heading home a curled Rooney cross from the right wing. But the referee’s assistant on the south touchline had his flag in the air before the ball even crossed the line. It was a tight thing and on another day play would have been waved on. Not tonight.
There was momentary panic among United fans when van der Sar appeared to rush foolishly out of his goal in an attempt to reach a long ball. Indeed, Anelka got there first. But the goalkeeper turned on his heels, waited for his moment and executed a perfect sliding tackle to dispossess the Frenchman and clear the danger. It wasn’t the first time van der Sar had won a personal duel with Anelka on the European stage.
Chelsea’s early bluster blew cool as the half wore on. Instead, United looked livelier and spent long periods encamped in the Londoners’ half. So it was no surprise when the Reds took the lead just before the break.
Again it was Hernandez – who else? – lurking within an inch of offisde. But this time, when he applied a finish into the roof of the net to Giggs’ probing low cross, the assistant’s flag remained down. United, in Sir Alex’s 100th European tie at Old Trafford, were ahead.
The goal, the Mexican’s 18th of the season, owed much to Giggs and O’Shea, whose clever interchange on the right wing cut out Anelka and allowed Giggs the space to dart into the penalty area and measure his killer pass to the far post.
When the net bulged, United’s fans took the roof off. The roar was primal, a guttural howl of ecstacy that only a football match of this magnitutde can produce. Sir Alex may have described Chelsea’s desire to win the Champions League as an obsession, but he was right when he pointed out United are just as desperate to lift the trophy again. And to do it at Wembley, the scene of the club’s first European success, back in 1968… just imagine.
Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti withdrew January signing Fernando Torres at half-time and threw on Didier Drogba. The big Ivory Coast striker had posed problems in the first leg and again he asked questions of United’s back four.
He screwed a speculative shot wide on 55 minutes just before the hour mark and won a free-kick when he tangled with Patrice Evra on the end of the box. His presence seemed to lift the visitors and when Salomon Kalou joined Drogba up front Chelsea looked a more potent proposition.
At the other end, Nani tested Cech with a stinging shot from 20 yards that the Chelsea stopper shoveled around the post, while Giggs spurned a glorious chance to double United’s lead when he headed tamely at Cech from Rooney’s delicious delivery.
Then came Ramires’ second booking, issued for another foul on Nani, who proved a constant thorn in Chelsea’s side. As Ramires disappeared down the tunnel, Chelsea’s chances of Champions League success seemed to go with him. How would Carlo Ancelotti’s men, two goals down on aggregate, recover from this?
United fans didn’t think it was possible. Drogba, though, had other ideas. The forward touched on an Essien pass, shook off Vidic’s attentions and blasted the ball past van der Sar to give the Londoners hope.
But Park settled the game – and the tie – almost immediately afterwards. The Reds go marching on.