Sports

Hakim Ziyech sinks Middlesbrough to send Chelsea into FA Cup semi-final | FA Cup

Uncertainty and confusion have made an unwelcome intrusion into Chelsea’s world but, for the moment at least, they show no signs of encroaching on to the pitch.

As a bewildering raft of prospective buyers waited to learn if they might be handed the keys to Stamford Bridge an amalgam of occasionally ruthless control and measured efficiency propelled Thomas Tuchel’s side into the semi-finals courtesy of goals from Romelu Lukaku and the excellent Hakim Ziyech.

Middlesbrough are pushing hard for promotion from the Championship and eliminated Manchester United and Tottenham in earlier rounds but despite some decent passages of intelligent play, Chris Wilder’s side rarely succeeded in unhinging a visiting defence well marshalled by Thiago Silva and Antonio Rüdiger.

With Tuchel’s players controlling the tempo, Wilder’s normally cohesive pressing game rarely hit its customary heights and an upset never really seemed feasible. “It was tough to make it look comfortable though,” said Tuchel, who switched his formation to 4-1-4-1 to counter Boro’s press. “Middlesbrough were brave and it was never easy. We never let them get in a foot in the door but our effort was huge. We were very disciplined, very serious and showed quality in decisive moments.”

The first arrived in the 14th minute. When Ziyech’s delivery picked out Mason Mount wide on the right, Mount was allowed to advance and unleash a dangerous, beautifully weighted, low cross for the on-rushing Lukaku to sweep into the back of net courtesy of a first time, six yard, shot. After winning their previous nine games at the Riverside Boro were suddenly up against it.

Mount, who had a very good game, created Chelsea’s second goal too. As yet another attempt on the part of Wilder’s team to press their guests into submission broke down, a counter-attacking Mount carried the ball forward before playing in Ziyech and watching his fellow attacking midfielder’s left foot do the rest.

After cutting inside Neil Taylor, Ziyech marked his 29th birthday by extending that favoured foot and sending an audacious, angled 20-yard shot swerving and dipping beyond the thoroughly deceived Joe Lumley’s outstretched fingertips.

“Champions of Europe” chanted the 700 Chelsea fans gathered in the ground’s south-east corner who had purchased tickets before the government imposed sanctions on their club’s outgoing owner Roman Abramovich and thus prevented any further sales of seats to away supporters.

Within minutes a crestfallen Lumley was rescued by Anfernee Dijksteel, the defender’s last-ditch, impeccably timed, goal-line clearance denying Lukaku a second goal after the Belgian wrong-footed Wilder’s goalkeeper. Given that Dijksteel impressed in Boro’s back three throughout, making some important interceptions, it seemed rather appropriate that he, albeit briefly, enjoyed a moment in the spotlight.

As the sun sank behind the main stand and the sky morphed from blue to dusky pink Édouard Mendy remained a peripheral figure as Wilder’s players struggled to dismantle the formidable barrier constructed by Silva and co. Hard as Isaiah Jones, Boro’s talented right wing-back tried, Chelsea’s defence persistently second guessed even his most inventive manoeuvres. When Wilder’s side finally managed a shot, Jonny Howson fluffed it.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Chelsea’s continued resistance to the tactics which have unnerved so many second-tier opponents must have left Boro’s manager wishing the government had not relented in the face of the London club’s pleas for an enhanced travel allowance. Maybe, just maybe, if they had stuck to the original budget and forced Tuchel’s players to travel north by bus rather than fly to Teesside airport they might have exhibited signs of tiredness as dusk descended. Instead Ziyech in particular looked increasingly lively.

Wilder’s cause was further hindered by the injuries to two components of his back three which forced the replacement of Dael Fry and then Paddy McNair with the 37-year-old Sol Bamba and the 35-year-old Lee Peltier. Not that Bamba showed his years as his well-timed tackle came between Lukaku and another goal.

Hakim Ziyech fires in to double Chelsea’s lead against Middlesbrough. Photograph: Richard Lee/Shutterstock

If only Folarin Balogun, Boro’s Arsenal loanee striker, had shown similar composure after Matt Crooks’s smart backheel flick fooled Malang Sarr and left him with only Mendy to beat. Unable to seize the moment, Balogun sent a shot ballooning over the bar. As Lumley atoned for his arguable culpability in Ziyech’s goal by palming Timo Werner’s header away, Boro fans’ thoughts surely began turning to their hopes of securing a play-off place.

Even so their increasingly aggressive side improved as the second half wore on and Mendy needed to react with alacrity to intercept Duncan Watmore’s menacing cross as team-mates jostled to lash it over the line.

“It wasn’t one-way traffic and I’m immensely proud of the players and the club for what’s been a terrific cup run,” said Wilder. “But we’re a little bit disappointed. It was a bit of a nearly game for us. We nearly got the press right but if you don’t get it quite right against Chelsea they’ll cut through you. We were playing world class players and didn’t get overrun but Thomas’s team showed their quality in the big moments.”

Related Articles

Back to top button