GILES SMITH: UPS AND DOWNS
Having had his own team selection instincts ignored last night, columnist Giles Smith still appreciated what he witnessed last night from his regular seat in the Matthew Harding Stand…
It was never just about a place in the quarter finals of the Capital One Cup - perfectly acceptable though one of those is, if it's on offer. It was always, over and above that, about some small measure of atonement for Sunday afternoon.
Not that Sunday, with its surprising levels of comedy and chaos, had left one feeling particularly downcast. On the contrary, one walked away from the ground after the match feeling really quite invigorated. One realised that one had just witnessed the performance of a Chelsea team that could do extremely well this season, provided its major rivals for honours aren't allowed to score too many winning goals against it from offside positions.
And provided its striker, when tripped while advancing into a promising position near the edge of the penalty area, gets a free kick rather a red card.
I know: it's a lot to ask, over the course of a season. But (and this was the abiding feeling after Sunday) given some of those crazy little breaks, who knows how far this team could go?
Now had I been the manager, approaching last night's rematch, I would have simply picked Sunday's team all over again (suspensions permitting) and sent them out there to pick up where they left off when they still had 10 men on the field.
But that's why it's a good thing, that I'm not the manager and that Roberto Di Matteo is. This was no time for narrow-minded retribution. Bearing in mind this Saturday's Premier League game at Swansea (a more important match than last night's, if we're going to think about it sensibly) and, beyond that, next week's Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk (more important again), the manager sent out a reshuffled side and, instead of a narrow-minded retribution, achieved a broad-minded retribution instead.
So again one was able to leave the ground feeling invigorated, but this time by the result, as well as by the squad's strength in depth and the determination that enabled this team to come from behind three times, send the match into extra time with the final kick of the game, go two goals ahead, concede a penalty and then hold on to win.
I've always felt that a one-goal margin in a cup tie was too narrow to justify breaking out the 'Que Seras' and the 'We're going to Wem-ber-leys', as Manchester United's supporters did last night with 10 minutes of the regulation 90 to go, and my hunch seems to have been right. It also turns out (as the United end, again, discovered) that a one-goal margin is too narrow to risk breaking out the 'We don't need Clattenburgs', too. As the genius Eden Hazard danced through a panicking United defence last night, it was all too readily apparent that, if you're a United fan, you never know when a Clattenburg might come in handy. Important lessons here, then.
Anyway, it all ended very happily, and one only wished the rested Robin van Persie could have been on the pitch to share the moment with us. What a loveable little scamp the former Arsenal striker is, with his even-tempered, joy-spreading demeanour (a perfect United fit in that respect) and his ability to receive the ball, directly after an opponent (Gary Cahill, specifically) has put it out of play to allow an injured United player to get treatment, and, instead of returning it to the goalkeeper in the time-honoured fashion, to knock it out for a throw-in deep in his opponent's half and then beckon forward his team mates to add pressure. Lovely stuff. Van Persie would have enjoyed last night with all its ups and downs, I'm sure, and we would have enjoyed having him there.
No doubt all of us sympathised with Manchester United's travelling supporters this week, who found themselves, by a quirk of the fixture schedule and the cup draw, having to make the same trek to south-west London and back twice within three days. It was impressive, in the circumstances, to see so many of them with us for a second time last night, and to hear them in such good voice, at least until extra-time.
Then again, when you think about it, these days the run into London from Guildford on the A3 is a pretty easy drive. And for United fans making the trip from even deeper into Surrey, the Hindhead Tunnel has been a real God-send, trimming as much as half an hour out of journey times to the capital during peak periods.
So, a double trek, yes. But thank heavens, for the United fans' sake, that they weren't drawn to play somewhere much further from home, such as Everton, say, or Manchester City. Now, that really would be quite a slog to have to make, twice in a week.
Not long after the draw for the quarter finals of the Capital One Cup put us together with Leeds United, they were reminiscing on the radio about the FA Cup Final of 1970 and remembering a fact that had drifted out to the edge of my memory.
After the 2-2 draw at Wembley, the replay at Old Trafford attracted a television audience of 28 million and remains the second most-watched UK sporting event after the 1966 World Cup final and the sixth most-watched UK broadcast of any kind. Heartening to think that the great viewer-magnets of British broadcasting history are, essentially, Morecambe, Wise and Chopper Harris.
One somehow doubts the forthcoming Capital One Cup encounter will pull an audience of that magnitude, even with the added spice of 'the Ken Bates factor' prickling the interest of the general public. It will, however, be a cleaner game and on a better pitch. Or let's hope so, at any rate.