Ramires leads Chelsea in the calm before the storm
Middlesbrough 0 Chelsea 2
Will an FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford be enough to unite the fragmented football club that is Chelsea? It is the latest question to emerge from a season of chaos. You would not bet on it, but then you would not bet on anything at Stamford Bridge right now.
Rafael Benitez has met vitriol whichever way he has turned since he succeeded Roberto Di Matteo as the interim manager. It will reach new levels against Manchester United in that sixth-round tie a week on Sunday – should he still be at the Bridge. Held in contempt by Sir Alex Ferguson, loathed for his association with Liverpool by the United supporters, Benitez will be the loneliest man in football that afternoon when he walks along the touchline, still believing he can emerge from the mess of a season with silverware.
It remains possible, following this relatively comfortable victory against a Middlesbrough side struggling for form and confidence in the Championship. Perhaps Monday's exchange at Chelsea's Cobham training ground, where Benitez questioned attitude, will be a turning point. For the remainder of his tenure, he has three months to either squeeze the side into the top four of the Premier League, or land the FA Cup or Europa League. If he does that, his CV will feel refreshed.
Either way, for Chelsea supporters, not much has changed. Benitez never had anything to gain with them and they will be allowed to fly flags on Saturday to condemn their own manager when West Bromwich Albion, led by former Chelsea favourite Steve Clarke, arrive at Stamford Bridge.
Despite eight changes to the Chelsea team that lost at Manchester City, Middlesbrough, with one win and one draw from their previous nine games in the Championship, were last night still facing a side that cost Roman Abramovich £125m to assemble. They are staggering figures, but the team was weaker for the changes, so much so that by half-time the best opportunity had come the way of the home side.
John Terry had been restored to the heart of the Chelsea defence and it was into this area that Nicky Bailey aimed an outswinging cross in the 26th minute – following good work by Faris Haroun – but Scott McDonald headed wide. That came four minutes after the struggling Fernando Torres had shot tamely at Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele.
That was as near as Steele came to a save in the first half. Petr Cech was a similarly unused figure for large spells of that first 45 minutes.
It was Torres, however, who scored Chelsea's first goal six minutes into the second half. After Yossi Benayoun had laid the ball off to the edge of the Middlesbrough penalty area, Ramires shot goalwards and the ball deflected in off Torres, the Spaniard knowing little about it.
Torres could have really boosted his flagging reputation just before the hour when he beat the offside trap but with space and time was closed down and his shot deflected for a corner.
Eden Hazard's introduction added an edge to the visitors. In the 72nd minute he took a pass from Ramires and quickly curled a shot narrowly wide of Steele's goal.
Seconds later he created Chelsea's second goal. Hazard was released by a clever Oscar back-heel and squared the ball to Victor Moses, who tapped home from close range. It looked simple, even if nothing at Chelsea is.
Man of the match Ramires.
Match rating 4/10.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Sixth round draw
Saturday 9 March Everton v Wigan (12.45pm, ITV); Manchester City v Barnsley
Sunday 10 March Millwall v Blackburn (2pm, ESPN); Manchester United v Middlesbrough (4.30pm, ITV)
Belfast Telegraph Digital