Chelsea caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo’s thoughts were with sacked manager Andre Villas-Boas after guiding a much-changed Blues team through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Di Matteo left Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Daniel Sturridge out of the starting line-up for last night’s 2-0 fifth-round replay win at Birmingham.
But he insists all the players were “on board” with his thinking as goals from Juan Mata and Raul Meireles sealed a last-eight meeting with Leicester at Stamford Bridge on March 18.
Di Matteo said: “My thoughts tonight go to Andre, to our manager. We faced a difficult task today given all the events of the last couple of days.
“But the attitude was right, the commitment was right, the passion was there, the result was right.
“The important thing was to go through to the next round and show that we care, that we can fight for our club and supporters.”
When asked about leaving out some of Chelsea’s big-name players, the Italian said: “They were all on board. They know what targets we have to achieve. They are big players for this club.
“We have a squad and we have to utilise the squad because we played on Saturday and we have another game this Saturday.
“It was just a question of freshening up the team a bit, giving it some energy and fresh legs for a game like this. We knew we had to fight.”
A bonus for Di Matteo was the return to the bench – ahead of schedule – of skipper John Terry, just two weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Di Matteo said: “John has done very well and is determined to help the club, and we’re pleased to see him. He’s available.
“We have to take him with small steps because he’s done well to come back in just over two weeks. But it was good to see him.”
Di Matteo sidestepped questions over whether he would be interested in taking the role on a permanent basis – if offered the chance.
He said: “Would I take it? I’m very tired tonight. I have to think about Stoke City from an hour’s time onwards, and that’s all I’m thinking about.
“Think whatever you want to think. I’m not thinking about anything else.”
City boss Chris Hughton was pleased with his players’ efforts despite their exit from the competition.
He said: “We gave it a real good go but needed to stay in the game at 0-0 longer in the second half. The first goal gave them a lift and the second was real quality.
“We have really enjoyed the cup runs in the Europa League and the FA Cup. People say they may have impacted on our hopes in the league.
“But I think they have had a positive impact on us and there is no shame in going out to a Chelsea side full of quality.”