There was an hour on the clock when Thomas Tuchel erupted at his players. A stroll against the Premier League’s bottom side had turned into a scrap. Sheffield United were fighting for their interim manager, Paul Heckingbottom, and Chelsea’s supposedly straightforward route into the last four of the FA Cup, where they will face Manchester City, was under threat.
Ever the perfectionist, Tuchel struggled to hold in his frustration. Chelsea’s manager knew an equaliser was on the cards. This quarter-final had finally come alive and it was United who were calling the shots, bossing midfield and repeatedly breaking beyond Chelsea on the left. Something had to change.
There was no hesitation from Tuchel. The German bellowed at his lethargic side and made changes after 63 minutes, hooking Andreas Christensen and the disappointing Olivier Giroud and sending on César Azpilicueta and Reece James with instructions to lock down Chelsea’s faltering right side. Yet United, who had barely attacked in the first half, kept pushing and missed a glorious chance in the 66th minute, David McGoldrick heading wide from close range when it looked easier to score.
“The first half was okay,” Tuchel said. “The second half we lost control. We lost momentum and there were many minutes to suffer. We were lucky to escape with a clean sheet. But this is absolutely okay after 14 matches.”
Chelsea, who sent Tammy Abraham for a scan on his injured ankle over the weekend, have rarely looked this vulnerable at the back in Tuchel’s first 14 games in charge. They were indebted to profligate finishing from Heckingbottom’s side. McGoldrick’s aberration was followed by further near misses and the hosts survived another scare in added time, escaping when Rhian Brewster drilled inches wide from an inviting position.
“It’s bittersweet,” Heckingbottom said. “I felt it was there for us today. We’ve missed an opportunity.”
At the outset this simply felt like a demonstration of Chelsea’s strength in depth. Tuchel made nine changes after reaching the last eight of the Champions League at the expense of Atlético Madrid and although Heckingbottom must have been pleased to see Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz on the bench, it would be pushing it to call it a weakened Chelsea side when they could bring in Italy’s Emerson Palmieri as a left-sided centre-back and give Giroud, a world champion forward, his first minutes since 28 February.
Yet Chelsea, who have still conceded only two goals under Tuchel, grew ragged as the game wore on. Their lead, carved out when Oliver Norwood turned a Ben Chilwell shot into his own net midway through the first half, was fragile. United threatened even after Tuchel’s changes. Oli McBurnie went close with a firm drive, Enda Stevens headed wide and it took a fine save from Kepa Arrizabalaga, making a rare start in goal for Chelsea, to deny McGoldrick a deserved equaliser.
Heckingbottom’s side, who are surely destined to return to the Championship and parted company with Chris Wilder last weekend, gave everything. They even forced Tuchel to bring on Ziyech and Havertz. Billy Gilmour, making his second start under Tuchel, had tired alongside Mateo Kovacic in midfield after a bright first half.
In the end, though, Chelsea had too much quality in attack. United were not ruthless enough. Chelsea showed them how to finish when Ziyech wrapped up victory moments after Brewster’s miss, volleying past Aaron Ramsdale from close range after being set up by Chilwell.
It summed up United’s season. Once again they lacked a cutting edge and fell to more decisive opponents. They worked hard to contain Chelsea in the first half, only to fall behind to a sloppy goal. Mason Mount swung a corner in from the right and United did not react quickly enough when Chilwell collected possession on the edge of the area. The left wing-back had time to set himself before unleashing a low drive and, although his shot was heading wide, Norwood’s touch took the ball past Ramsdale.
Chelsea had chances to double their lead, Ramsdale twice denying Christian Pulisic. Yet United resisted. They began to play at long last and their big moment arrived when a loose ball fell to Brewster, who fired wide. Ziyech soon showed the young forward how to finish and a relived Tuchel could look forward to a day out at Wembley.