A new manager heralded a change of fortune for Chelsea last night as they progressed to the Sixth Round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory at Birmingham City. Second-half goals from the Iberian duo of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles were sufficient to give Roberto Di Matteo a win in his first game in charge of the Blues.
His starting line-up was suggestive he isn’t ready to bow down in front of the ‘egos’ that allegedly run the dressing-room these days. Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Daniel Sturridge and Didier Drogba were all benched, while the injured Ashley Cole made way for Ryan Bertrand. Salomon Kalou was a surprise recall while Mikel joined Meireles at the heart of the midfield, with Ramires, Mata and Fernando Torres further forward.
The move was almost justified within the opening couple of minutes when Torres put Mata through on goal but he found Colin Doyle in good form, not for the first time in the evening. Ramires skewed a shot wide after beating his man while Nathan Redmond and Nikola Zigic were causing problems for the Chelsea defence, with the latter’s header well tipped over the bar by captain Petr Cech at full stretch. Just before the interval Torres found some space in the box but dragged his left-footed effort well wide. The half was over with both defences on top, much like in the first game at Stamford Bridge.
A revitalized Chelsea side emerged after the break, however, and their pressure eventually paid off. Mata, who moments earlier had been blocked by compatriot Pablo Ibanez after excellent work by Kalou, finally got his goal. More excellent work on the right by Ramires was followed by a low cross which caused chaos in the home back line, and with Kalou and Mata very much in the thick of it, the Spaniard thrashed home with his weaker right foot beyond the despairing dive of Doyle. It was Chelsea’s first domestic away goal from open play by one of their own players since Lampard’s late winner at Wolves on 4th January. It also kept up Mata’s record of scoring in every round of the Cup thus far.
Chelsea pushed on and Mata headed just wide almost instantly. Good approach play then brought its rewards with Ivanovic, Cahill and finally Ramires helping tee up Meireles who thumped the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box. It was a fantastic goal and one Chelsea supporters will wish they had seen more of from the Portuguese this season.
Chelsea were displaying levels of confidence not seen for many weeks by now, and should have had a third. Torres was tripped breaking into the box but shied away from taking the penalty and instead it was left to Mata to be thwarted by Doyle from the spot for the second time. Substitute Daniel Sturridge then missed an even easier chance but Torres’ fantastic cross went unrewarded, with the ball getting stuck under the English striker’s feet barely a couple of yards from the line.
Birmingham were given renewed vigour by Chelsea’s profligacy and Jordan Mutch wasted a glorious chance to pull a goal back but blazed over – such generosity which is less likely to go unpunished against Napoli next Wednesday. King and Redmond also had sights of goal but Chelsea held strong to book a 6th Round tie at home to Leicester City in ten days’ time. The Di Matteo era is up and running.
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