MANCHESTER: Manchester United suffered a Champions League hangover as they raced into a two-goal lead against holders Chelsea on their FA Cup quarter-final – and were then lucky to hold on for a 2-2 draw and a replay.
Chelsea, evicted earlier this season from the Champions League, displayed the sort of revivalist spirit which justified the claims of interim manager Rafa Benitez that he has theplayers on his side now.
He might even have won over a few of his own antagonistic fans with his second-half substitutions which turned the game. No wonder he walked out on to the pitch at the final whistle to shake hands with each of his players.
Before the kick-off Benitez had met a derisive reception from United fans who have no more love for him than Chelsea supporters. Memories still linger at Old Trafford of the accusations Benitez used to throw at United and Sir Alex Ferguson when he was in charge at Liverpool.
On this occasion, however, the Benitez-Ferguson rivalry had to take second place in issue priorities to that of Wayne Rooney’s future.
Ferguson omitted Rooney from his starting line-up against Real Madrid in midweek and appeared to be justified when United led 1-0. But the controversial expulsion of Nani handed Madrid the opportunity to strike back, twice, and even Rooney’s appearance for the last 19 minutes could not rescue the day.
Before the Cup-tie Ferguson continued to insist that his tactical choice in midweek had been justified while both teams had 11 players on the pitch. He also sought to defray some responsibility for any wear and tear by blaming England for exposing Rooney too widely to media and sponsors while on international duty.
United’s manager still maintains the forward is England’s best player and dismissed as “rubbish” suggestions that Rooney was unfit, overweight and unprofessional.
Ferguson insisted he had no intention of selling Rooney and will instead wants to extend a contract which expires in 2015. Asked whether Rooney would be at Old Trafford next season, the Scot’s reply was unequivocal: “There’s no doubt about that. There’s no issue with his contract. When it gets time to renegotiate, it will be done. We don’t want players to leave.
“Wayne’s coming to his mature years [approaching his peak]. He’s had a lot of issues this year in terms of illness, injuries and not had a long run of games but he’ll get 20 goals, no doubt about that.”
Rooney duly started up front against Chelsea alongside Chicharito Hernandez with Robin Van Persie this time dropped to the substitutes’ bench. Hernandez always scores against Chelsea and he did it again in the opening minutes for his sixth goal in his last seven games against the Blues in all competitions.
Rooney, of course, scored United’s second in the 11th minute with a free kick from wide on the left which skimmed over the heads of Demba Ba and David Luiz. The England forward celebrated by blowing a kiss to the Stretford End.
Jeers of: “You’re getting sacked in the morning” poured down on Benitez from both sets of fans. But he had other ideas. When he brought on Eden Hazard and Jon Mikel Obi Chelsea fans shouted: “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
But he did. Chelsea took over. Hazard and Ramires struck twice and, at the end, it was United who lucky to escape with a draw.
FA Cup semi-finals
Millwall or Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic
Manchester Utd or Chelsea v Manchester City
To be played over weekend of April 13 and 14
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