Chelsea are into the FA Cup semi-final for the fifth time in the past six seasons courtesy of an excellent performance at Middlesbrough and fine first-half team goals finished by Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech.
Not for the first time in recent weeks the Blues shut out the noise from outside and did their talking on the pitch, impressing from the off at the Riverside against the Championship outfit who had already knocked out Manchester United and Tottenham in this competition.
Lukaku finished a flowing Chelsea move on 15 minutes for his third FA Cup goal this campaign, the influential Mason Mount the supplier as we calmly played out from the back.
Birthday boy Ziyech had extra cause for celebration on the half-hour when he brilliantly fired in our second goal from range, again bringing an attractive Chelsea move that started deep inside our half to a perfect conclusion.
In truth, the result was rarely in doubt from that moment on. Edouard Mendy was largely a spectator and Thiago Silva controlled the game from the heart of defence. Lukaku had a shot cleared off the line and sub Timo Werner also went close on a couple of occasions late on, but two goals proved more than enough. Our good recent record in this competition, against Middlesbrough, and in the past few weeks, goes on.
Now international football takes centre stage for the last time this season and then a blockbuster finish to the season, including an FA Cup semi-final, beckons for the Blues.
There were five changes to the Chelsea team selected by Thomas Tuchel less than 72 hours after the full-time whistle in Lille, as well as a shift in shape to 4-3-3. Malang Sarr, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ziyech and Lukaku all came in, as did Mount, a half-time sub in France.
Kepa Arrizabalaga was unavailable so Mendy kept his place, as did Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Toni Rudiger. Sarr completed the back four. In midfield, Mateo Kovacic was joined by Mount and Loftus-Cheek, with Christian Pulisic on the left of a front three that also contained Ziyech and Lukaku.
Middlesbrough were unchanged from their midweek win at Birmingham.
On a beautiful early evening in Teesside, Chelsea started strongly. Three minutes were on the clock when Mount sent in a teasing low delivery that Dael Fry wasn’t far away from putting into his own net with Lukaku lurking.
Loftus-Cheek then glided past two red shirts in style and found Pulisic in space to his left. After the American’s initial effort was deflected away from goal, we kept the pressure on and he dug out a cross Ziyech couldn’t connect with cleanly under pressure from Neil Taylor.
Roared on by a raucous Riverside, Boro responded by winning a couple of corners we negotiated without alarm. Then, on the quarter-hour, we seized control of the tie.
Back to front to go in front
The brilliance of Thiago Silva got us out of a tight spot at one end, beating the Boro press and finding Ziyech. His threaded pass down the line released the roaming Mount, who crossed low and hard. The delivery dissected the Boro backline perfectly, and there was Lukaku for a tap-in.
The striker showed his worth down the other end, heading an inswinging Marcus Tavernier free-kick over his own bar. The resulting corner was allowed to bounce in our six-yard box before we scrambled to safety.
On the half-hour, we doubled our lead, and again it was built from the back. Mendy and co were patient, and when Rudiger found Kovacic, the pitch opened up. Quick passes to Mount and on to Ziyech spread the play, and Azpi overlapped inviting the Moroccan to cut inside and shoot from just outside the box. His dipping strike swirled away from Joe Lumley’s reach and nestled in the far corner. The perfect way to celebrate your birthday!
Five minutes later, Lukaku so nearly had his second and our third. Pulisic’s intended pass for an offside Ziyech was intercepted into his path, and after he neatly took the ball around Lumley and shot goalwards, Anfernee Dijksteel recovered superbly to clear off the line.
Chelsea remained in complete control as the first half drew to a close. We were well worthy of our two-goal advantage having impressively silenced the home crowd. It was the 677 travelling supporters in one corner of the Riverside who had been making all the noise for some time.
Sol Bamba replaced Dael Fry during the interval and the veteran defender’s first involvement was to execute a slide tackle that stopped Lukaku racing away.
As the minutes ticked on, Boro tried to get more bodies forward in search of a way back into the contest, but our backline were on top form. Thiago Silva was again irrepressible. After Duncan Watmore shot over midway through the second period, Timo Werner and N’Golo Kante replaced Pulisic and Kovacic respectively.
Finishing as we began
Werner came close to scoring with almost his first touch when he glanced on a Mount free-kick. Lumley parried behind.
The German saw a shot blocked by Bamba after an intricate move had cut Boro open with 10 minutes left. Kenedy then replaced Ziyech for his second Cup appearance since returning from loan. Harvey Vale soon followed him onto the pitch.
Mendy made his first meaningful save of the night to palm Josh Coburn’s shot away as our hosts briefly threatened a late push. It was not forthcoming, as Chelsea played out the closing stages as we had the beginning of the game: in complete control.
A welcome international break and a chance to reset after an eventful few weeks on and off the pitch. We will be back in action against Brentford at Stamford Bridge on Saturday 2 April.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Mendy; Azpilicueta (c), Thiago Silva, Rudiger, Sarr; Mount, Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic (Kante 69); Ziyech (Kenedy 81), Lukaku (Vale 84), Pulisic (Werner 68)Unused subs Bettinelli, Alonso, Chalobah, Barkley, HavertzScorers Lukaku 15, Ziyech 31
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Lumley; Dijksteel, Fry (Bamba h/t), McNair (Peltier 53); Jones, Crooks, Howson, Tavernier, Taylor (Bola 58); Connolly (Watmore 58), Balogun (Coburn 74)Unused subs Daniels, Hall, Olusanya, Boyd-MunceBooked Howson 87, Peltier 89
Referee Paul TierneyCrowd 31,422