Manchester United’s defence of the Emirates FA Cup came to an end on Monday evening, as the Reds were narrowly defeated 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Jose Mourinho’s men more than matched the Premier League leaders for much of the first half, but it was Ander Herrera’s dismissal on 35 minutes that proved the game’s pivotal moment.
It took six minutes of the second period for the home side to make their numerical advantage count, as N’Golo Kante fired home from the edge of the box, a goal which ultimately separated the sides.
In the absence of attacking trio Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney, it was left to Marcus Rashford to lead the line in West London. The youngster was named in the starting line-up alongside Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a scorer in United’s previous outing, last week’s 1-1 draw against FC Rostov in the Europa League. Also back in the fold was Matteo Darmian, who was named in a five-man defence, while Ashley Young retained his spot in midfield.
Eager to avoid a repeat of October’s 4-0 league defeat in West London, and roared on by 5,644 travelling fans, the Reds made an encouraging start, winning a corner inside the opening two minutes.
United soon fashioned a goalscoring chance, too, as Rashford was challenged on the edge of the area, allowing Mkhitaryan the chance to take over and shoot narrowly wide. In what was a lively start, the hosts then went close on 15 minutes, as Eden Hazard span away from Chris Smalling in midfield before sprinting towards goal and seeing a low effort diverted behind for a corner by David De Gea’s fingertips.
From the resulting set-piece, the ball fell at the feet of the Blues’ stand-in captain, Gary Cahill, who would have opened the scoring but for a stunning save from the returning De Gea. So often has United’s no.1 produced world-class moments, and this was yet another, as the Spaniard dived low to his right to palm the ball away.
Tensions were as high off the pitch as they were on it, with both Antonio Conte and Mourinho – back at the club with whom he won the FA Cup at United’s expense in 2007 – kicking every ball from the touchline. Things then threatened to boil over 10 minutes before the break when, having already been booked for blocking Hazard, Herrera was sent off for a second foul on the Belgian.
It was a decision that left the travelling fans in disbelief, and the Reds with a mountain to climb going into the second half.