The King is dead, long live the king. That was how Ken Bates, Chelsea’s controversial former chairman, greeted the arrival of Ruud Gullit as manager when Glenn Hoddle left to take over the England team nearly 15 years ago.
Whether the replacement of Andre Villas-Boas by Roberto Di Matteo will be considered a royal succession remains to be seen, but the Italian’s first game in charge was a royal success as Chelsea progressed to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup with a hard-fought FA Cup replay over Birmingham.
Di Matteo said afterwards: “Everybody was involved tonight, even those guys on the bench. This is the only way we can reach our targets. We have two months left until the end of the season and we have to help each other if we are to achieve what we set out to do.
“It can only happen if all 25 players are unselfish and working for each other. This was for Andre.”
It was the Championship side’s draw at Stamford Bridge, sandwiched between defeats at Everton and Naples, that signalled the beginning of the end for Villas-Boas. The young Portuguese coach was finally sacked on Sunday by Roman Abramovich, who spent over an hour telling his expensively-assembled squad of players what was expected of them.
The final straw had come 24 hours earlier with another defeat, at West Brom, where Di Matteo had been manager before becoming assistant to Villas-Boas last year. For his return to Birmingham just three days later, the Italian chose not to change too much, even though he was boosted by the unexpected return to fitness of captain John Terry, back on the substitutes bench after five weeks out with a knee injury. He was sitting alongside Frank Lampard the player whose exclusion was one of the biggest problems for Villas-Boas. Another was the poor form of Fernando Torres, which continued into this game as Chelsea struggled in the early stages on a tricky pitch.
The Spaniard cut a wretched figure once again, looking isolated and all out of confidence. When the occasional chance passed his way, he failed to take it, a point exemplified moments before half-time when the ball fell for him inside the penalty area but he dragged his shot wide.
Yet while Torres has been woeful, his fellow countryman Juan Mata has been wonderful, a rare ray of light in a gloomy season for the Blues. Although he missed a penalty late on here, as he had at Stamford Bridge, Mata made the breakthrough in the 54th minute with his 10th goal of the season, before Raul Meireles gave Chelsea a two-goal cushion shortly afterwards with a spectacular strike.
But it was not as comfortable as the scoreline might suggest, and the way Chelsea played, particularly in a nervy first half, makes one wonder whether the faultlines lie so deep that further changes are required in a club where the established players are reluctant to let go, and the new ones, with the exception of Mata, have simply not shown enough to prove they can take the club forward.
It was the same again here, with Chelsea struggling to find any rhythm or goal threat for much of the game. Mata was denied by the excellent Colin Doyle in the opening minutes, but for the rest of the first half Birmingham looked the more composed side, passing the ball with purpose and stretching Chelsea’s back line. David Luiz made a last-ditch tackle to prevent Nathan Redmond finishing off a slick passing move, and Petr Cech was at full stretch to tip over a header from the towering Nikola Zigic, whose head was cut by the boot of Luiz.
Mata was foiled again early in the second half, but finally opened the scoring in the 54th minute. Birmingham conceded possession cheaply in their own half and the ball fell for Ramires on the right. His low cross ended with an almighty scramble, and through a crowd of legs, Mata poked the ball home to put Chelsea ahead.
It was effectively over six minutes later when a fine passing move ended with Branislav Ivanovic crossing from the right, Gary Cahill controlling the ball for Ramires to lay it off for Meireles, whose 25 yard shot flew into the top corner. Chelsea finally started to play with confidence, and when Torres was bundled over by Guirane N’Daw in the 68th minute, Mata should have put the tie beyond doubt. But Corkman Doyle dived to his left to make a superb save. Although Cech made another good save to keep out Marlon King’s long shot, after Jordan Mutch missed a golden opportunity, Chelsea had their chances too, with Daniel Sturridge missing a sitter from close range. But there were hugs and smiles at the end, with those players who had clearly been at odds with Villas-Boas celebrating with his successor.
BIRMINGHAM: Doyle, Spector, Ibanez, Davies, N’Daw (King 72), Redmond, Mutch, Gomis, Elliott, Rooney (Burke 59), Zigic.
CHELSEA: Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Bertrand, Ramires (Lampard 75), Mikel, Meireles, Kalou (Sturridge 59), Torres, Mata (Essien 89).
Referee: Anthony Taylor.
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