Jose Mourinho chuckled away like it was all he could do not to react with rage as Michael Oliver showed Ander Herrera a first-half red card in Manchester United’s FA Cup quarter-final loss to Chelsea.
But, while the Portuguese may decry the referee’s decision, it is his own midfielder who should be doing the apologising after the Red Devils’ cup defence was ended in west London by N’Golo Kante’s 51st-minute goal.
With no Zlatan Ibrahimovic, no Wayne Rooney, no Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford arriving after the rest of the squad due to a bout of illness, Mourinho’s side were always going to have to take a cagey approach against the runaway Premier League leaders. But they were actually the brighter team for much of the opening exchanges, with the wily ex-Chelsea boss getting his tactics spot on.
United pressed high, knocked the Blues off their stride somewhat and looked to feed Rashford through the channels where it was clear he had the beating of the Chelsea back-line. When Chelsea did make forays forward, Eden Hazard often managed to get free or drew fouls from Phil Jones, and it was after one such collision that the game was turned on its head.
Jones’ persistent fouling prompted Oliver to call over captain Chris Smalling and warn him that the regular misdemeanours were beginning to get out of hand. Only Herrera had found his way into the book for a clear body check on Diego Costa, but the referee’s patience was being tested.
Just seconds later, Herrera thought it a good idea to make a stretching challenge on the twisting Hazard. It wasn’t nasty, it wasn’t heavy, but it was clumsy and careless. More than that, coming immediately after Oliver’s intervention it was downright reckless. And considering Hazard was turning into two free markers in Antonio Valencia and Smalling, it was utterly needless.
Herrera had risked United’s foothold in the game for nothing. It wasn’t as though Hazard was breaking free. It was game management at its worst and, when Mourinho had set his side up so meticulously to deal with Chelsea’s threat and his own side’s absences, the last thing he needed was to see one of his players tear up the plan less than 35 minutes in.
Mourinho was forced into an immediate reshuffle, taking off attacking outlet Henrikh Mkhitaryan for the more solid Marouane Fellaini, and United were left sticking men behind the ball, cutting Rashford free up top and hoping for the best.
The United boss tried to be diplomatic afterwards but made it clear he was unhappy with Oliver's decision-making.
"Of course we can analyse in different perspectives, everyone can," he told the BBC. "But I think we all watched the match until the red card, and after the red card. Then we can compare the decisions of the two yellow cards, in this case the second yellow card, with other ones that were not given but I don’t want to go in that direction.
"This season Mr Michael Oliver is a referee with fantastic potential, but with Manchester United we were a bit unlucky. In four matches, three penalties and one red card in such an early moment of the game. But again, I cannot change that."
Kante’s goal early in the second half came after Chelsea went for the kill from the restart and thereafter they did just enough to keep United at arm’s length. The second half was a far cry from an opening half-hour in which the visitors had arguably been the better side, and inarguably the team for whom the game was going more to plan.
But Herrera’s inability to be game-smart when it counted made all the difference. Yes, Oliver could have been more lenient but why should he have been having just warned Jones and Smalling that he couldn’t continue to overlook stupid fouls which were checking Chelsea’s progress?
The referee was well within his right to send off Herrera, the Spaniard was just dumb enough to test Oliver’s patience. The result was United going out of the FA Cup, and Mourinho spent much of the rest of the night riling everyone around him of a blue persuasion as he looked for opportunities to have the numbers levelled up.
As neutrals we were robbed of what looked set to be an absorbing contest between 22 superbly-drilled players. But it was Herrera, not Oliver, who tainted a potential classic.