Chelsea started life after AVB with a comfortable, professional win in Roberto Di Matteo’s first match in interim charge. Any potential confusion under new management was concealed, and Chelsea managed to book a last-eight tie against Leicester City, in the hope to win the competition for the fourth time in six years. Juan Mata opened the scoring with a stab home after a mêlée concurred, and Raul Meireles, one of AVB’s summer signings, struck home a second with a beautiful hit. Juan Mata could even afford to miss a penalty, a penalty won by Fernando Torres, who, despite fans and players alike urging him to, refused to take it.
Pre-match, Roberto Di Matteo was brutally honest when asked and admitted that this was the “biggest challenge of my life”. And for all Chelsea fans, they were all eagerly waiting to see who would start in this new regime. Ryan Bertand was left-back for the night with Ashley Cole injured. Mikel and Meireles came into the midfield, whilst Kalou and Torres, together with Mata, made up the front three. John Terry, who only had knee surgery two weeks ago, make a miraculous recovery, to earn himself a place on the bench.
The once tried but not trusted 4-2-3-1 system was used under the AVB reign, but not to great effect. Yet Di Matteo had clearly seen enough in previous outings to convince him this was the way to beat the Championship side, with Ramires out wide.
Two minutes in and a great chance to relieve any fan’s anxiety. Torres released Mata, but the creative winger failed to spot Kalou who was unmarked, instead opting to selfishly shoot, which Doyle dealt with comfortably.
Zigic was turning out to be a real handful for the Chelsea defence, but David Luiz was up to the task time and again. The Serbian’s frustrations at not being able to get past a skilful Brazilian would only have been heightened with a kick to the face by Luiz.
Torres, restored in favour of Drogba, was proving to have a torrid night, the ball bouncing off his knee harmlessly from a lovely Ivanovic cross.
Zigic nearly put the home side in front on 37 minutes, this time getting in front of Luiz and looping a header goalwards, but the big Chelsea goalkeeper was able to claw it away.
But the big moment for Torres to redeem himself after a run of 23 games without scoring. Beautifully turning from the City defence, Torres had all the space he had craved, but the man shot of confidence dragged horribly wide.
RDM did not panic in the half-time team-talk and made no substitutions despite not being ahead. Kalou was working up some space well, perhaps conscious of the fact he had a point to prove if he wants an extension to his Chelsea contract.
But it was Mata, in a more central role tonight, who got the breakthrough. Ramires used his energy and got down the right wing, dispossessing Mutch. His cross found Kalou, but two attempts by the Ivorian were blocked. The ball fell kindly to Mata, who stabbed home to give Chelsea some breathing space.
Just five minutes later and Chelsea had their second. Meireles, often deployed as a holding midfielder, was given a licence to roam, and walloped in a shot from 25 yards. The build-up by first Ivanovic and then a lay-off by Ramires was intricate, but the Portuguese man refused to celebrate, perhaps in view of his compatriot being fired just days earlier.
By now, the away section of the crowd were in fine voice. “Jose Mourinho” was chanted in the first half, now was the turn for “One Roberto Di Matteo”.
Then came the moment where everything could have been done and dusted. Torres was felled by N’Daw, but declined offers to take the ensuing penalty. But when Mata hit it too close to Doyle, who had saved from him in the original tie, even Torres would have thought he could have done better.
Birmingham had nothing to lose and Chris Hughton sent on Marlon King to test if Chelsea would get complacent. It nearly backfired, if only Birmingham-boy Sturridge, on for Kalou, could have tapped home a lovely ball from Torres, which seemed harder to miss than score.
The match could have turned out differently had Mutch, through on goal with eight minutes left, scored instead of lifting over Cech and the goal. Instead, it is the London side of the Blues who progress to the last eight of the competition, in a home tie against Leicester City next weekend.