Chelsea's season comes to an end as former striker Romelu Lukaku excels
LIVERPOOL, England -- It was febrile and hostile with accusations and elimination, a loss of temper and a damaging defeat. And then Guus Hiddink brought a little humour to proceedings.
What, he was asked, could he do with the troublesome Diego Costa? Take him to anger-management sessions, perhaps? "There are movies about that, I think. One with Jack Nicholson. Maybe we go and watch it together."
Perhaps "Anger Management" will become essential viewing at Stamford Bridge. In a way, a DVD of this game, showcasing Costa's red card and starring the effective end of Chelsea's sorry season, should be. It was a microcosm of their failings over the 2015-16 campaign and highlighted the flaws in a policy that has dated back for several years.
There will be no silver lining and no trophy to camouflage the extraordinary underachievement. A Chelsea old boy ensured as much. In a match that generated extremes of emotion and outcome, no contrast was greater than between the two strikers. Romelu Lukaku exited to a standing ovation, scorer of two goals; with his innate gift for superlatives, Roberto Martinez declared that one of them "is going to be one of the best goals scored in the FA Cup." Costa departed in disgrace, sent off amid the suspicion that he almost bit Gareth Barry.
Chelsea were toothless with the exception of two moments: when Costa evaded Ramiro Funes Mori and Joel Robles and, from an improbable angle, almost rolled them into the lead, and when he bared his teeth at Barry. He was dismissed for his reaction to the midfielder's foul rather than a Luis Suarez-esque inability to determine between an opponent and a meal.
"Gareth Barry has said it is nothing to worry about," said Martinez, which was as close to either manager came to confirming or denying it. (Hiddink claimed not to have seen the incident.) Yet the footballing issue was that Costa had reverted to the player he was in his awful autumn, one more intent on making enemies than scoring goals. Hiddink accused Everton of provoking the agent provocateur.
"He was chased a bit in the game," Hiddink said. "They went after him. They knew it. It is within the rules." He attributed Costa's bad mood in part to his injury problems but accepted that "at a club like Chelsea you must play with responsibility." Costa showed none.
Hobbling off on Wednesday and sent off on Saturday, Costa has proven unable to complete games. He at least performed with distinction against Paris Saint-Germain; not so at Goodison Park. His initial assault on Barry, the cause of his first booking, seemed to suggest an aptitude for the NFL. He soon clattered into Seamus Coleman. Costa gave Chelsea aggression, but not attacking impetus. Their supposed creators fashioned little.
Overall, Chelsea looked uninspired and unimpressive. They recorded a solitary shot on target despite facing Everton, a team with the Premier League's worst home defensive record, at Goodison Park. They fielded two defensive midfielders in Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel yet sieved two goals. They prioritised solidity, lacked quality and left the competition ignominiously. It was a throwback of a performance, reminiscent of many a dark day under Jose Mourinho.
Meanwhile, Everton surge into a second semifinal of the season after Lukaku's two goals in five second-half minutes. He has 25 for the season, the most by any Everton player since Gary Lineker's 40-goal campaign 30 years ago. He was pacey, powerful, purposeful and potent, everything Costa ought to have been. Once nicknamed "the baby Drogba," he illustrated how the Ivorian's successor as Chelsea's talisman and target man should have played. Lukaku never scored for Chelsea; he now has two goals against them.
Lukaku is symptomatic of Chelsea's prowess and problems in the transfer market. They sign talented players, rarely pick them and then sell them, often at a profit. They recouped £28 million for him, but in so doing, they lost the man who could prove the most prolific striker in England this season.
There was something depressingly predictable about the identity of Chelsea's tormentor. In this most chastening of seasons, their rejects have outperformed their current class. Claudio Ranieri and Robert Huth have excelled for league leaders Leicester. Petr Cech has flourished for third-placed Arsenal. Kevin de Bruyne has a Capital One Cup winner's medal to show for his time so far at Manchester City. Victor Moses may yet help West Ham into the Champions League. Ryan Bertrand is a stalwart for Southampton, who are now in seventh place. Glen Johnson has helped Stoke into the top nine, while Lukaku has ejected Chelsea from the FA Cup and outscored any of their players.
When stalemate beckoned, he stepped up. "It needed a moment of magic," said Martinez. Everton required sturdiness too. They rewound the clock, looking more like David Moyes' defensively sound pragmatists more than the Spaniard's self-destructive entertainers.
And so Everton remain on course for a first FA Cup since 1995, while for the first time in 21 years, Chelsea have nothing to play for in April, let alone May. This last week has brought a hat trick of setbacks, spread across three competitions. Any remote hopes that the Hiddink renaissance would result in a late surge into the top four were killed off when Mame Biram Diouf levelled for Stoke last week. Then Paris Saint-Germain condemned them to an unusually early Champions League exit. Now they have departed the FA Cup.
"We had two roads to achieve success," lamented Hiddink. "Now they are gone. We have to go on with pride for the club." But Chelsea are used to playing for much, much more.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.