Sunday 19 November 2017

Mata gets ball rolling as Chelsea march on

Leeds United 1
Chelsea 5
League Cup quarter-final

Juan Mata celebrates scoring Chelsea's first goal with team-mate Cesar Azpilicueta
Juan Mata celebrates scoring Chelsea's first goal with team-mate Cesar Azpilicueta

John Percy

Perhaps the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet is not in danger of gathering cobwebs after all, as Chelsea overcame jetlag and the prospect of further turbulence against one of their oldest and most bitter rivals.

Neil Warnock may never get the chance to exact revenge on his nemesis Rafael Benitez again after a typically absorbing cup tie in one of English football's most famous theatres, with five goals in the second half easing the pressure on Chelsea's unpopular manager.

Days after defeat in the FIFA Club World Cup, losing to a Championship club would only have increased the levels of disdain towards Roberto Di Matteo's unwanted successor but this was a welcome sign that their season may not be over yet. Fernando Torres also claimed his sixth goal in five games to provide a hint that he could be approaching a new chapter in his troubled Chelsea career

For 45 minutes, this was what Warnock had been patiently waiting for, five years after holding Benitez responsible for relegation at his beloved Sheffield United. Warnock will have been all arms and legs clambering over rival managers in the queue to stick another knife into Benitez but class told in the second half.

These two clubs may have to wait a while before they meet each other again.

Enmity between the two clubs runs deep, with their bitter rivalry established on the muddy battlefields of the 1970s. It was, of course, the FA Cup final replay 32 years ago that ignited hostilities, and one of the more prominent protagonists in that gorefest, Ron "Chopper" Harris, was a guest last night.

Whereas skirmishes used to be frequent, this was their first date in more than eight years and time had done little to diminish the hatred. Chelsea supporters on official coaches were ferried to Elland Road, and both managers had been warned by West Yorkshire Police to put their fractious relationship aside and ensure their players did nothing to poison the atmosphere further.

Ken Bates was also in no mood to inflame the tension in his programme notes. His column is usually gripping and contentious agenda-driven reading and there were rumours before the game that he would take the opportunity to sling a shot across the bows of Roman Abramovich for his decision to sack Roberto Di Matteo, who Bates affectionately referred to as "his son" during his time at Stamford Bridge. There was nothing of the sort, however, with Bates instead attacking UEFA and FIFA for opting to play the European Nations Cup at venues across Europe.


The much anticipated frosty handshake between Warnock and Benitez also failed to materialise but this scrappy affair, on a mucky night, contained all the incident and was a reminder of those halycon days of decades ago.

Chelsea only returned home on Monday afternoon after an energy-sapping 6,000-mile flight from Japan and showed no obvious signs of fatigue in the early stages. Victor Moses tested Jamie Ashdown with a low drive from just inside the area and then again on 24 minutes but Leeds were clearly relishing the chance to add Chelsea to a list of prized scalps that included Everton and Southampton this season.

With the likes of El Hadji Diouf and Michael Brown, Leeds had players who have turned putting noses out of joint into an art form in the past and while they were both influential it was Jerome Thomas, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, who produced the telling contribution for the opening goal eight minutes before half-time.

Michael Tonge sent Thomas clear on the left and his cross into the area with the outside of the foot was exquisite, providing Becchio with the chance to wrong-foot Petr Cech by directing the ball into the bottom corner. Elland Road, still a formidable venue when at near capacity, erupted.

There was a sense that Ashdown was going to have one of those nights and hog the headlines but he was finally beaten 65 seconds into the second period. He was possibly at fault too, as he allowed Juan Mata's low shot from 25 yards to squirt across the line.

Now the tie was pulsating as both teams dropped their earlier caution to threaten sporadically as the decibels grew louder. Torres, who Abramovich clearly believed would be reinvigorated by the appointment of mentor Benitez, frustratingly flitted in and out of the game and should have given Chelsea the lead but his close-range header was just about kept out by Ashdown.

Their gradual superiority was eventually rewarded on 65 minutes and paved the way to a resounding victory. Lampard's corner was typically precise and Ivanovic headed in at the near post, with Ashdown stranded. Moses then effectively ended any lingering Leeds hopes with a low drive from 20 yards to provide Benitez with his fourth victory.

Eden Hazard, a substitute, added another when he ambled clear before Torres rubbed Leeds' noses in it with a finish from close range. Two trophies are still up for grabs. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

SEMI-FINAL DRAW: Chelsea v Swansea; Bradford v Aston Villa. First legs to be played week of Jan 7; Second leg, week starting Jan 21

Irish Independent

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