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Cup exit allows Boro to focus on promotion push
Final Score: Middlesbrough 0 Chelsea 2
BEATEN but not bowed, Middlesbrough proved last night they were capable of matching one of the best sides in the Premier League for long periods of their FA Cup fifth-round tie.
The challenge over the next two months is to ensure they get the opportunity to repeat the experience on a regular basis next season.
There will be no more cup ties to detract from the primary task of securing a place in the Championship play-offs after second-half goals from Fernando Torres and Victor Moses secured Chelsea a quarter-final tie against Manchester United.
The reigning European champions were far from their best, indeed Middlesbrough arguably shaded a surprisingly uneventful opening period. But the visitors got the job done in the end, releasing some of the pressure that was mounting on Rafael Benitez and ensuring they could still end the season with a domestic and European cup double.
Middlesbrough's attention switches to Saturday's crunch Championship game with runaway leaders Cardiff, and the challenge of addressing a run of seven defeats from nine league matches.
Tony Mowbray's status as a Boro legend makes him immune from the type of criticism that might otherwise have been expected given his side's nosedive out of the play-off places in recent weeks, but this will nevertheless feel like a wasted season if a top-six place is not reclaimed by the start of May.
Benitez does not have anything like the leeway that is afforded to Mowbray, indeed the Spaniard was going to be up against it even if he had led his side to another Champions League triumph this season such was the degree of animosity that accompanied his appointment at Stamford Bridge. At least after last night, the knives remain unsharpened for a little while longer.
Benitez made eight changes from the Chelsea side that lost at Manchester City last weekend, yet such is the depth of the talent pool available to him, the Blues line-up could hardly have been described as sub-standard.
The likes of John Terry, Yossi Benayoun and Torres might not have excelled this season, but they remain seasoned internationals and, on paper at least, should easily have had the beating of a Middlesbrough line-up that inevitably reflects the financial reality of a fourth successive season in the Championship.
As this season's cup competitions have proved though, football does not work like that and for all that the struggles of the last two months have sapped confidence, Boro's players were in no mood to play second fiddle to their exalted opponents.
Committed and energetic from the off, the Teessiders pressed Chelsea's attacking players in every area of the pitch. As a result, the visitors initially failed to establish any kind of rhythm, straining unsuccessfully for an opening that was never really there and repeatedly conceding possession as the home side's high-octane approach paid dividends.
Jason Steele was only forced to make a single save in the opening 50 minutes, and even that was a relaxed affair, a fact that underlined both the strength of Boro's defensive organisation and the impotence of Chelsea's attacking.
Oscar released Torres into a one-on-one situation against Stephen McManus, hardly a scenario to inspire confidence amongst the Riverside regulars, yet rather than taking on the Scotsman, the confidence-starved Chelsea striker rushed a desperately poor shot straight at Steele.
Even the first-half departure of the injured Andre Bikey failed to disrupt the Boro back four, to the extent that Chelsea's only other effort on goal before the break saw Nicky Bailey block Oscar's scuffed shot after Moses had surged past George Friend.
Having shipped goals left, right and centre recently, Boro exuded security for long periods, with both Grant Leadbitter and Rhys Williams providing valuable solidity at the heart of midfield.
Their attacking threat was sporadic, but it was easier to detect than Chelsea's for long periods of the first half.
The hosts created the best chance of the opening period, with Scott McDonald heading Bailey's cross past the right-hand upright in the 26th minute. It was a difficult opportunity, with McDonald having to twist his head to reach a ball that was marginally behind him, but given his strength in and around the six-yard box, the Australian might well have expected to do better.
The same could be said of Cech five minutes before the break, with the Chelsea goalkeeper spilling Mustapha Carayol's somewhat tame shot from the edge of the area. Unfortunately, from a home perspective, the ball fell kindly for Terry to hack clear. Had Boro claimed the lead at any stage, Chelsea's fragile frame of mind might well have prevented them from restoring parity. As it was, the visitors broke the deadlock six minutes after the interval and never really looked back.
There was a large degree of fortune in the opener, with Ramires' drive from the edge of the penalty area deflecting off Torres' shoulder before finding its way into the corner of the net. Steele might not have been able to keep the ball out anyway, but Torres knew nothing about an intervention that made life impossible for the Boro goalkeeper.
Buoyed by their opener, Chelsea were a different side in the second half. Moses dragged a shot across the face of goal within 60 seconds of Torres' deflection, before Steele was forced to produce an excellent fingertip save to prevent Torres adding a second with a rising angled drive.
The delay was only temporary though, with the visitors producing an exquisite move to double their lead in the 73rd minute. Oscar's impudent back-heel released Eden Hazard into the penalty area, and the substitute calmly squared the ball across the face of the six-yard box for Moses to tap home.
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