MIDDLESBROUGH shook off their recent Championship form to give the champions of Europe a run for their not inconsiderable money.
A big crowd at the Riverside Stadium had little to complain about as their team actually bettered Chelsea, albeit one missing some top players from the starting line-up, for parts of this FA Cup fifth-round tie.
It took an incredibly fortuitous goal just after half-time to get the Blues going, although they eventually ran out fairly comfortable winners.
Tony Mowbray will hope his players can carry this sort of performance into Saturday’s home match with league leaders Cardiff City.
A much-needed win would be a distinct possibility if they could manage this task.
Mowbray asked his players for a performance and to at least make Chelsea work for their win. They did that, in all fairness to them.
Rafa Benitez’s gamble of playing a weakened team paid off.
He even started with Fernando Torres who was, quite frankly, awful.
The songs ‘Fernando’ and ‘Money for Nothing’ were played back-to-back pre-match.
That does not reflect too well on Middlesbrough, a club who have wasted a bit of cash in their time, but it reflected perfectly on Chelsea’s No9 – despite his goal, which was a fluke.
Yossi Benayoun started for Chelsea for the first time since the opening weekend of last season, while 18-year-old midfielder Nathan Ake also made his debut.
However, it was still enough for the FA Cup holders to progress to the quarter-finals and a plum clash at Manchester United.
Middlesbrough looked a bit nervous in the opening stages.
Nobody was willing to take a touch and any possession they gained was all too quickly given away.
Chelsea could have been ahead after just eight minutes when Victor Moses inexplicably allowed the ball to bobble past him when he should have at least connected with Oscar’s low cross into the six-yard box. Scott McDonald got the home fans out of their seats for the first time when he looked to have beaten the offside trap when getting behind Chelsea’s defence, but he had just gone too quickly as Nicky Bailey looked to find him with a fine pass.
Then at the other end Moses ran with the ball for 50 yards without a tackle being made on him and cut back the ball inside the box to Oscar whose shot was blocked by Bailey.
Despite Chelsea being given two decent chances inside the opening ten minutes, Boro’s confidence returned.
They passed the ball about quite well and spent a bit of time in Chelsea’s half. Mowbray had talked of his players closing down Chelsea and that’s exactly what they were doing.
However, it was good play rather than hard work which produced their first real opportunity on 25 minutes.
There seemed to be nowhere for Faris Haroun to go on the touchline as Ryan Bertrand and Benayoun were right on him.
Yet, with a neat turn, he got past both blue shirts and laid the ball back to Bailey whose cross was met flush by the head of McDonald, the ball missing its intended target by no more than a few inches.
Mowbray was forced into a change on 35 minutes when Andre Bikey, who had looked from the start as if he was struggling, hobbled off with Seb Hines taking his place beside Stephen McManus in central defence.
Mustapha Carayol gave Petr Cech something to think about on 40 minutes when he cut inside Paulo Ferreira and let go with a right-foot shot which bounced off the Chelsea goalkeeper.
There was a nice touch before half-time as the Chelsea subs warmed up when the home fans applauded Frank Lampard. Ashley Cole was, of course, booed.
At the break, it could be argued that Middlesbrough had been slightly the better side.
Alas, the second half went the other way. Only five minutes had gone when Chelsea took the lead.
Oscar made a determined run into the box and his cross fell to the feet or Ramires, via what could have been the hand of Bailey. His shot hit off Torres and the ball looped past Jason Steele.
The £50million man knew nothing about it.
This was harsh on Middlesbrough, who had done little wrong.
The Torres of old got a rare outing on 58 minutes when he killed Bertrand’s long ball on his right boot, after beating Boro’s offside trap, and then sent a fierce shot just over Steele’s crossbar.
The Teessiders, to their immense credit, kept at it.
On 68 minutes only a last-ditch tackle from Ake halted a Rhys Williams charge into the box which had looked dangerous.
Ishmael Miller and Emmanuel Zemmama were thrown on in the final quarter as Mowbray decided he might as well go for it.
However, it was a Chelsea substitute, Eden Hazard, who almost got his side a second on 71 minutes when his curling shot from outside the box flew wide of Steele’s left- hand post.
The tie was settled, however, on 73 minutes. This time the goal dripped with class.
Hazard began the move on the edge of the box.
He played a one-two with Oscar’s backheel before squaring the ball across the six-yard box, which gave Moses a simple tap-in.
Oscar smelled blood and he proved unstoppable when he ran at Boro’s defence, who by now seemed scared of him, only for the Brazilian to send his shot wide.
McDonald, lively all night, had a shot late on which fizzed wide and a free-kick from Zemmama had Cech at full stretch, while Hines saw a header nestle in the side-netting.
So Middlesbrough took credit from the evening and lots of it. It was always the best they could have hoped for.