An incredibly open encounter between two sides managed by normally more restrained figures. The game began in an open fashion and continued like this for the duration of the game aided by both managers naming adventurous starting line ups.
Having played away to Rubin Kazan on Thursday night, Benitez unsurprisingly made a number of changes to that side. Perhaps the most startlingly decision by Benitez was to use the attacking trio of Oscar, Hazard and Mata behind Demba Ba. With Ramires used in a deeper position but always looking to push forward in support of the attack. This was an attacking selection and not really in keeping with the usual more conservative Benitez.
Mancini retained faith in Pantilimon as City’s FA Cup keeper. With Silva out injured, Aguero started in attack with Nasri and Milner on the wings. Other than that, this is arguably City’s strongest line up now.
The type of game that would develop was evident from the opening exchanges. Man City would dominate possession and attack with Chelsea trying to counter. Whether this was the intention of Benitez can be argued but it was how the game developed.
As early as the 2nd minute, Zabaleta was making an overlapping run on the outside of Milner but Bertrand tracked his run deep into the penalty area. Just a minute later and Toure collected the ball at the halfway line and surged forward releasing Aguero whose shot struck the side netting. Chelsea tried to respond and attack but when that ended, Gael Clichy attempted to exploit Chelsea during a transition with a run which went deep into the Chelsea half before he was halted. This was a problem that Chelsea failed to contend with. With Ramires looking to move higher, Mikel becomes isolated in a defensive midfield position and lacks the mobility to cover ground quickly.
A key feature of the first half was City’s ability to alter the tempo of the game. Content to pass the ball slowly in their own half without any pressure from a Chelsea side that dropped off, City ramped up the tempo as they moved toward the final third. Yet, Mancini’s side could also go long with direct balls towards Aguero who was dropping off and forcing Chelsea’s central defenders to come out with him leaving space in behind.
The opening goal was the perfect example of what Man City had been attempting and what Chelsea were failing to prevent. Yaya Toure picked up possession at the halfway line as City passed the ball relatively slowly and immediately drove diagonally forward. He was tracked initially by Mata before the Spaniard let him go. Nobody challenged Toure until he released the ball to Aguero. As he had been doing also, the forward played a quick pass to Nasri. There was an element of luck at this point. Nasri attempted to pass back to Aguero but the pass was blocked and landed back in his path enabling him to score.
City should have doubled their lead as half time approached. A quick transition from a Chelsea attack was started by a Milner run forward. His shot was saved by Cech and Kompany blasted the volley wide.
The half had ended as it began with City on the front foot, quicker, sharper and more aggressive than Chelsea both in attack and when having to get back to defend. Hazard and Oscar had tracked back and defended initially but as the half had worn on, they became slower to do so affording City further space.
City offered much greater fluidity in the final third of the pitch with constant combinations between Aguero who moved deep and Tevez who would move beyond his international team mate. With Nasri and Milner cutting in from the wings and supported by the charging runs of Yaya Toure, City were able to dominate the middle of the pitch and overload Chelsea here. Even allowing for this, Ramires and Mikel, in particular, seemed woefully off the pace at times.
Furthermore, there was too big a gap between the lines of Chelsea possibly due to Ramires wanting to push on but getting caught out. Chelsea were unable to recover positions quickly enough. For a manger such as Benitez who is constantly gesticulating from the technical area for his team to be compact and squeeze space, the gaps that City found were significant. The main creative outlet for the side was Juan Mata but with only Demba Ba to aim for and Hazard and Oscar peripheral figures, his task was always going to be more difficult.
When a team endures a particularly poor first half, there is always something reassuring for fans when they convince themselves that their team cannot play as poorly in the second half as they did in the first half. The team has the chance to regroup, receive instructions and address their shortcomings and quite often a team emerges from the dressing room at half time, with a different attitude. Sure, the result may not always go the right way, but if the attitude, work ethic and approach improve, the fans can recognise this and appreciate the effort which is, of course, the least they should expect.
So why did Chelsea emerge and immediately concede a second goal with more of the same failings?
Ramires received possession in his own half and was promptly closed down and robbed by Milner forcing a silly foul in the centre of the pitch by the Brazilian. The free kick was taken and moved right where Gareth Barry had time and space to control the ball, shift it on to his left foot and deliver a cross for Aguero to head in the second. The first problem was the absence of pressure on the ball. Barry was not pressed. After the cross, the second problem was the ease with which Aguero simply lost his marker in the penalty area and found space.
After this, the game flowed from end to end with neither side really taking a firm grasp of the game and controlling it. City had chances to finish the game but repeatedly made poor decisions when in advantageous situations. Twice in quick succession, City had the opportunity to score a third goal but the wrong option was taken and the chance lost.
The introduction of Fernando Torres had an immediate impact. A long free kick by David Luiz left Kompany and Nastasic defending against Torres and Ba. When Kompany failed to clear, Ba produced an incredible acrobatic finish to provide Chelsea with hope. From City’s perspective, the concession of a goal from such a rudimentary free kick will be an issue. The team failed to regroup into position quickly enough. Kompany and Nastasic should not have been left 2 vs 2 from a long punt down the park.
Mancini would bring on Lescott and Garcia for Nasri and Tevez as he tried to take control of the central area as Chelsea enjoyed their best spell of the game. Despite dominating and playing the better football, City had to endure a few nervous moments before their Cup Final place was guaranteed.
Game Control vs Transitions
This was a game that either had everything that was great about the English game or displayed everything that is lacking in the English game. Which side you come down upon will depend entirely on your individual preference.
From the outset, the game moved at pace from end to end with City displaying a very high tempo possibly in the belief that Chelsea would be adversely affected from their Europa League game on Thursday evening and their already long season with the additional games the side has faced.
At what stage does the transitional nature of the game, as entertaining as it is, become too much?
With his line up, Benitez was never going to be able to close this game down if Chelsea took the lead but Mancini could have. With a 2-0 lead, Mancini and City should have closed this game out. Instead they failed to do so and the Chelsea goal enable the see-saw nature to continue right to the final whistle.
The one player on the pitch who displayed a range of qualities, slowing the tempo down in the attacking third or being more direct when required to do so was Juan Mata but the players around him were lacking on the day.
Despite playing in a lethargic manner for so much of the game, Chelsea finished very strongly which does question those critics who claim that the game arrived too soon after a Europa League game in the Ukraine. The side were lethargic and sluggish for much of the game. It leaves Chelsea with two objectives now, the Europa League and securing Champions League football for next season.
Mancini leads Man City into another FA Cup Final with his side ending the season strongly after the earlier disappointments. It does leave a feeling of what if though. When they play to form, City can produce some excellent football as they demonstrated in patches here but a lack of consistency, and arguably the game control highlighted earlier, has cost them dearly this season.