Only three sides have defeated them in 40 matches this season and, for the third time since November, Manchester United again failed to join that select band. Even the advantage of having an extra man for 40 minutes failed to tilt the balance as United, for only the second time in 26 matches, drew a blank. As if to underline Chelsea's new solidity, they were the successful defence on the other occasion.
The replay, for the right to meet in the semi-final, will be at Stamford Bridge this Wednesday. It could be a lively affair, Roberto Di Matteo, after 45 minutes, and Paul Scholes, after 85, were sent off yesterday. On Wednesday, adding fuel to the simmering flames, Dennis Wise is back from suspension.
Chelsea will also have Frank Leboeuf and Celestine Babayaro back from suspension but United can call on Jaap Stam and Ryan Giggs, respectively suspended and injured yesterday. Alex Ferguson may also decide to start with Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, he gambled on leaving them on the bench yesterday and paid for it.
"I thought we played well but if we get chances like that we have to take them," Ferguson said. "We did everything but score. We should be in the semi-final, we had one or two golden opportunities - Scholes could have scored four."
He added of Scholes: "He was sent off for an innocuous challenge. The referee is probably the best there is in the country and he should have used his experience more than he did. He sent him off to even it up which is wrong."
Vialli, who would not discuss the dismissals, said: "It was not our best performance for passing and attacking but it was about spirit and determination. We were very good defensively."
Chelsea's defence was centred on the magnificent Marcel Desailly. "He is a winner and he is a bit more angry now than when he first came and that makes a difference," Vialli said. "After the World Cup it was difficult to make such a huge change from Italy to England and find motivation after winning [the World Cup] but he is now performing at his best which is nice because this is the crucial moment of the season. He is a player who, when the task is difficult, looks to his inner strength."
The absence of Yorke and Cole had undoubtedly helped Desailly but he was just as commanding when they belatedly arrived. Before then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been alone in attack and, with Phil Neville deputed to man- mark Gianfranco Zola, United had a defensive look at odds with their desire to avoid a replay.
Chelsea were similarly understrength though this owed less to choice than to the constraints imposed by suspension and injury which robbed Vialli of seven senior players, including himself.
United may have appeared negative in shape but they were not so in spirit but, though they pushed forward eagerly, they failed to create a genuine chance before the 38th minute. Then Gary Neville, of all people, almost put them ahead with a diving header from Beckham's beautifully-judged cross. The ball skimmed off his head to strike the far post before being hacked clear.
It was as close as United were to come though that seemed unlikely when, as half-time approached, Di Matteo was dismissed. Booked for a late tackle on Beckham after 25 minutes he was cautioned again for a similar lunge at Scholes. On neither occasion did he hurt the player, and on the second he appeared to be attempting to pull out, but both were within yards of Durkin who had already made it clear he was going to referee by the book. It was the eighth dismissal suffered by Chelsea this season.
Chelsea re-organised by withdrawing Petrescu, who had been a negligible influence as skipper, and replacing him with Eddie Newton who immediately became their seventh captain of the season. They then pulled in the wagons and invited United to break them down.
They could not. There was no lack of chances, with United having 24 goal attempts across the 90 minutes, but only five were on target. The best chances fell to Beckham, who spooned his shot over when set up by Scholes, and Scholes himself. He brought two great saves from De Goey, a diving stop after 57 minutes and a leaping tip over the bar with 15 minutes of the match remaining.
Instead of being the hero Scholes ended the villain. Harshly booked for fouling Petrescu just before the break he went for a clumsy challenge on Goldbaek.
United, who have beaten Chelsea in the FA Cup three times in the last five seasons, will not fear a trip to London. "We've a good record down there," Ferguson said. Both he and Vialli agreed that Arsenal, already with the lightest fixture load, were the day's winners. "They are favourites for the League now," added the United manager, "but we're still in the Cup and we've got to take that."
Manchester United (3-3-3-1): Schmeichel; Berg, P Neville (Yorke, 70), Brown; G Neville, Keane, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Blomqvist (Sheringham, 81); Solskjaer (Cole, 81). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Curtis.
Chelsea (4-4-1-1): De Goey; Ferrer, Lambourde, Desailly, Le Saux; Petrescu (Newton, h-t), Di Matteo, Morris, Goldbaek; Zola (Myers, 78); Flo (Forssell, 59). Substitutes not used: Hitchcock (gk), Nicholls.
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).
Sendings off: Manchester United: Scholes (85). Chelsea: Di Matteo (45).
Bookings: Manchester United: Keane, Scholes, P Neville. Chelsea: Desailly, Di Matteo.
Man of the match: Desailly.
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