Wembley has seen more exciting, more open and more compelling FA Cup finals but Antonio Conte won’t care as Eden Hazard’s first-half penalty was enough to bring the cup back to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were defensively solid throughout and looked dangerous on the counter attack while Manchester United struggled to find any rhythm in attack.
Before kick-off, former Chelsea and Manchester United great Ray Wilkins was remembered with banners at either side of Wembley Stadium in a fitting match-up.
The Blues’ defensive tactics were clear from the outset as Gary Cahill marshalled a very deep-lying backline in order to stifle United’s substantial attacking threat. Despite their unambitious set-up, Chelsea had the first real chance of the game when Eden Hazard burst in the penalty area on the left and fired his shot towards the near post, only to be denied by the outstretched leg of David De Gea.
The Red Devils were missing their focal point of Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian not fit enough to start, and were having the majority of possession without penetrating towards Thibaut Courtois’ goal. The final finally opened up after half an hour when Cesc Fabregas pinged a ball in the direction of Hazard, landing it perfectly in his teammate’s stride. With his first touch, Hazard burst past a stranded Phil Jones and was bearing down on goal. It seemed as if he just had to slip it past De Gea to put the Blues in front but Jones, in desperation, attempted to play the ball and clumsily brought his opponent down inside the box.
Michael Oliver pointed to the spot and booked Jones, judging that it was a fair attempt at playing the ball. In his six years at Chelsea, Hazard has occasionally been criticised for going missing in the big games and, recently, didn’t shine against United at Old Trafford. In front of the United fans that had tormented him in the past, Hazard placed the ball on the penalty spot. As he started a very relaxed run-up, he fixed his gaze on the bottom left corner, waited for De Gea to commit that way and simply rolled it into the other side of the goal and his typically ice-cool composure. He strode away in celebration, lifting his finger to his ear to taunt those questioning United fans behind that goal, knowing that he’d scored yet another crucial goal against them.
A late surge from Paul Pogba eventually lead to a chance for Marcus Rashford just before half time but Antonio Rudiger was there to block the youngster’s tame effort and the Blues went into the break as deserved leaders.
Jose Mourinho had clearly given his side a talking to during the interval and the team in red came out in the second half with much more attacking intent. In fact, they pinned Chelsea back inside their own half more almost the entire 45 minutes and it took a sturdy defensive job from the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger, backed up by Courtois in goal, to keep United out.
Ander Herrera played Antonio Valencia in behind a few minutes after the restart and the right back squared the ball to the edge of the area. Cesc Fabregas collected it but dallied on the ball for too long and was dispossessed by Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean found Rashford whose powerful effort was beaten away by Courtois but the danger signs were there for all to see inside Wembley. Rashford was again involved moments later when he whipped in a free kick which was met by a stooping Jones. His headed effort seemed like it was creeping into the far corner but Courtois used all of his reach to keep the ball out, only to see it rebound off Sanchez and into the net. However, to Chelsea’s relief, the offside flag was up. Back on the touchline, Antonio Conte was back to his old effervescent self; pointing, shouting and waving his arms frantically to direct his players where to go, who to mark and who to pass to. Also in the dugout, Romelu Lukaku was limbering up, ready to come on.
With one of their first ventures into the final third, the Blues almost doubled their lead when N’Golo Kante set up Marcos Alonso in the area but the Spaniard dug out a shot with his right foot which was saved at close range by a sprawling De Gea. If that had been on his left side, the net would’ve almost certainly been rippling. An equally good opportunity fell to an unmarked Pogba up the other end but he couldn’t guide his header goalwards from six yards out. Nemanja Matic also went close with a header but couldn’t keep his effort down after a cross into the box. Up the other end, late substitute Juan Mata put the ball out for a Chelsea corner in the last minute of stoppage time.
Another replacement, Willian, and Fabregas held it in the corner and waited for that final whistle to sound. When the referee did stop the game, it was greeted by joyous celebrations from one half of Wembley, one half of the technical area and the blue half of the players on the pitch. Despite a disappointing title defence in the Premier League and the almost inevitable departure of Antonio Conte, the Blues had something to celebrate, not a Champions League place, but something tangible and silver.