A full match report of the FA Cup fifth-round replay between Birmingham City and Chelsea at St Andrew’s on Tuesday Mar 6, 2012.
There were messages off the pitch – and on it – for Chelsea last night as they earned a place in the last eight of the FA Cup with goals from André Villas-Boas’s two key signings.
Juan Mata celebrated his, Raul Meireles studiously did not his in the first match since the young Portuguese was sacked.
That dismissal came because the Chelsea’s hierarchy did not believe he could negotiate this replay and the rest of the campaign but now they have a quarter-final at home to another Championship club, Leicester City.
The 3,000 visiting Chelsea supporters chanted the name of Villas-Boas’s temporary replacement, Roberto Di Matteo.
But there was more from the stands. Rafael Benítez was told, in no uncertain terms, that he was not wanted. Jose Mourinho, inevitably, was told he most definitely was.
With a tilt at Wembley to come, Di Matteo might start to believe he can be retained.
Was it a dropping of some of those big names or was it resting those same players for the forthcoming clashes in the Premier League and Champions League?
Maybe a mixture of both, but Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole started the contest among the substitutes with a place also for John Terry, less than a fortnight after a knee operation that was to have ruled him out for up to six weeks. That was surely a marker that he intends to be fit for the Napoli tie next Wednesday.
Either way it meant Di Matteo felt he had enough to overcome Birmingham, who were depleted through injury, and recalled Fernando Torres – a move that will have pleased the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich who has made it clear he wants the striker brought back.
Still Roy Keane, a television pundit last night, was less than pleased with the antics of the Chelsea players in the warm-up, commenting: “They’ve let their manager down badly and they are carrying on like that in the warm-up, flicking each other’s ears… absolute disgrace.”
It was a message – although not quite so forcefully expressed – carried by some of the Chelsea fans.
“Play for the shirt, not your egos,” read one banner.
What would the new start bring? Well, almost a perfect start with Torres sending Juan Mata, playing more centrally, clear.
Torres then sprinted up in support, unmarked at the far post, but Mata delayed and delayed and was perhaps hampered by the poor pitch before he was crowded around and shot weakly. He should have scored but it was not the precursor to more opportunities.
Instead the contest become as bogged down as the turf. Chances were at a premium; as was fluent football.
The totemic Birmingham striker Nikola Zigic – the only survivor in this line-up from last season’s Premier League team – showed remarkably quick feet to flick a pass to Nathan Redmond but as he threatened to burst through, David Luiz hoofed his clearance.
Luiz was even more forceful in dealing with Zigic, twice clattering the Serb – and the second time he cut him above the eye with a stray boot which drew blood and an angry response. The striker, when he eventually returned, attempted to gain retribution and instead earned a caution for a wild lunge at Gary Cahill.
Not that Chelsea were comfortable. When Birmingham threw in crosses and set-pieces they struggled to deal with them and, from one, Zigic stooped in front of Cahill to send a header that Petr Cech had to deftly tip over the bar. Before that and Zigic and reached another free-kick to find Wade Elliott, whose low shot was held by Cech.
If Chelsea were unconvincing in defence, they were little more so in attack.
The recalled Salomon Kalou, making a first start since October, worked his way across the penalty area to feed Ramires who screwed his shot while, time and again, Torres failed to control.
When given the chance to run at the last defender, Torres then checked back, waited and was dispossessed.
Finally he showed the strength to roll Curtis Davies and space opened up on the area’s edge. He shot – but dragged his effort woefully wide. All this time Di Matteo stood on the touch-line, arms folded, observing.
Mata had another opportunity soon into the second half, combining smartly with Kalou and scampering into the area only, this time, for the impressive Pablo Ibanez to halt him with a crisp tackle. But Mata wouldn’t be denied.
After Ramires broke down the right, he centred to Kalou whose efforts to shoot were twice blocked before the ball broke to Mata who stabbed his effort through a crowd of players and into the net.
Soon after and Mata should have claimed another, only to send Branislav Ivanovic’s cross wide from close range but Chelsea then did claim a second.
And it was some strike with Ramires laying the ball back to Meireles who hit a crisp, powerful right-footed drive from 25 yards that flew past Doyle.
Chelsea poured forward and Torres won a penalty as he was bundled over by Guirane N’Daw only for Doyle to superbly parry Mata’s powerful spot-kick. Just as he had done in the first encounter.
Would it be costly? Surely not. Except Cahill had to be alert to tackle substitute Marlon King as he shaped to shoot and then Redmond drove over from distance before Torres broke again, whipped in a cross which substitute Daniel Sturridge miskicked horribly from just two yards out.
Birmingham also went close. Jordon Mutch was released only to slice wildly over while Cahill, just, beat Davies to a header and Cech beat out King’s powerful shot.
Birmingham (4-4-2): Doyle, Spector, Ibanez, Davies, N’Daw (King 72); Redmond, Mutch, Gomis, Elliott; Rooney (Burke 59), Zigic.
Subs: Myhill (gk), Valles, Packwood, Reilly, Jervis.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech, Bertrand, Cahill, Luiz, Ivanovic; Meireles, Mikel; Kalou (Sturridge 59), Mata (Essien 89), Ramires (Lampard 75); Torres.
Subs: Hilario (gk), Drogba, Lukaku, Sturridge, Terry.