Nemanja Matić isn’t one of football’s most prolific goal-scorers. Instead, the Serbian is a hard-tackling, no-nonsense defensive midfielder who likes to place himself just ahead of the back four. For Chelsea, time and again, the 28-year-old has provided protection to his defenders, working hard to dominate the midfield and steal away any loose balls with smart interceptions.
It’s a skill-set that earned him a second stint at the London club in 2015 after spending three fruitful years at Benfica in Portugal. And even on his return, he guided Chelsea to the Premier League title, and found a spot in the PFA Team of the Year for the 2014-15 season.
This year, Matić and Chelsea find themselves on the verge of another league title. There’s also the prospect of doing the league and FA Cup double. On Saturday, Chelsea played city rivals Tottenham Hotspur for a spot in the FA Cup final.
The match lived up to the billing, as it had all the makings of a roller-coaster classic. Chelsea took the lead twice, and Tottenham equalised both goals at the Wembley Stadium.
When Eden Hazard put Chelsea in the lead yet again, in the 75th minute, it was expected that Tottenham would come out all guns blazing to find another equaliser. But that’s where Matić stepped in to put the game beyond their London rivals.
Hazard surged forward in the 80th minute, down the right flank. A quick one-two with Cesc Fàbregas got him the ball on the edge of the box, only for a wave of Tottenham defenders to block his route. He tried to dodge, but was forced to make a pass. In Matić, he spotted an unmarked teammate, and neatly laid off a measured ball.
Based on their research, the Tottenham squad would have expected Matić to control, look for options, and pass on the ball. The six-foot-four Serb’s teammates might have expected the same. But out of nowhere, without taking a touch to control the ball, Matić let loose with his left foot.
A sweet connection from the laces had pace and accuracy, with limited swerve, as the ball thudded the underside of the crossbar and crashed into the net. The goalkeeper didn’t move.
Matic's team-mate Kurt Zouma's on the bench could not believe what he had just witnessed, with his wide-eyed celebration set to be one of those memes the internet will not forget.
Chelsea’s lead had doubled for the first time in the game, and all of a sudden, the tenacious Tottenham seemed to have lost all hope of making a comeback. The final score remained at 4-2 in favour of the Blues.
It was a strike that put Chelsea into the FA Cup final. It was certainly not a bad way to get your first goal of the season.