Birmingham 0 Chelsea 2: Life without AVB starts with win thanks to Mata and Meireles
If anyone is mourning the loss of Andre Villas-Boas, they are hiding it well. 'Roman Abramovich, he sacks who he wants,' sang Chelsea fans last night with more than a hint of glee as their campaign shuffled towards Wembley.
Two goals inside six second-half minutes from Juan Mata and Raul Meireles ended the Birmingham's resistance and set-up the six times FA Cup winners with a quarter-final at home to another Championship team.
Beat Leicester on Sunday week and Roberto di Matteo could be leading Chelsea back to Wembley, where they have won the trophy three times in five years since the national stadium was rebuilt.
Juan-nil: Spain midfielder Mata celebrates after putting Chelsea ahead at St Andrew's
Birmingham: Doyle, Spector, Ibanez,
Davies, N'Daw (King 72), Redmond, Mutch, Gomis, Elliott, Rooney (Burke 59), Zigic.
Subs not used:
Myhill, Valles, Reilly, Jervis, Packwood.
Cech, Ivanovic, Luiz, Cahill, Bertrand, Ramires (Lampard 75), Mikel, Meireles,
Kalou (Sturridge 59), Torres, Mata (Essien 89).
Subs not used: Hilario, Drogba, Lukaku, Terry.
Goals: Mata 54, Meireles 60
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Cheshire)
Villas-Boas can only look on from a distance as the team who rebelled against his leadership find an extra gear as they respond to Abramovich's ultimatum to prove their worth before the end of the campaign.
Di Matteo stepped in and gave the squad a shake but much of what unfolded was roughly the same. There with no hint of the relentless power or energy which was once the trademark of the team from Stamford Bridge until Mata had opened the scoring in the 54th minute.
Fernando Torres found himself a figure of fun. When one Birmingham fan fluffed his big moment during a half-time shoot-out. 'Worse than Torres,' he declared. Then, after he was tripped to win a penalty in the second half and Mata stepped forward, the crowd chanted: 'We want Torres.' Mata's effort was saved.
The game had barely kicked off when more than 3,000 Chelsea fans chanted the name of Jose Mourinho but made it known they did not want Rafa Benitez. So much for the FA Cup legend on the touchline, who had ditched the tracksuit in favour of a smart overcoat, slacks and skinny tie.
Predator: Mata pokes home from inside the box after Ramires's cross caused pandemonium
Through the crowd: Raul Meireles (second left) strikes to double Chelsea's advantage
Di Matteo, picking his first team since sacked by West Bromwich 13 months ago, made five changes to the Chelsea team beaten at The Hawthorns on Saturday in what was to be the last game of the brief Villas-Boas era.
On the bench were Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, although they were apparently assured by the caretaker manager that this was a decision made with the next two fixtures – homes games against Stoke and Napoli – in mind.
John Terry was among the substitutes, too, less than a fortnight after a knee operation which was expected to keep him out for up to eight weeks.
On the touchline: Chelsea caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo (right) gives his orders
Di Matteo made a tweak to the usual Chelsea shape. The 4-3-3 became a 4-2-3-1 formation with Raul Meireles and John Mikel Obi deployed as deep midfielders. Ramires and Salomon Kalou started wide with Juan Mata in the hole behind Torres and, within two minutes, the Spaniards had combined well.
Torres dropped, turned and released Mata, who was thwarted by Colin Doyle, the goalkeeper who saved his penalty in last month's drawn game at Stamford Bridge.
No spring in his step: Chelsea's misfiring striker Fernando Torres did not score yet again
The inability of Villas-Boas to make Torres function effectively played a significant part in his downfall, not to mention the implied criticism of a comparison with Andriy Shevchenko and Mateja Kezman in an interview last week.
This was a 50th Chelsea appearance for Torres and despite his understanding with Mata, there were still moments when his touch deserted him in front of goal. The 50million striker looked timid and hesitant at the times when instinct ought to kick in. When a clear chance dropped on his left foot in first-half stoppage time, he screwed it wide.
Group hug: Meireles' Chelsea team-mates congratulate him (centre) on his second-half strike
Chelsea arrived at St Andrew's having lost their last three away games, scoring only once, but dominated against a depleted Birmingham team playing for the 47th time this season. Kalou, starting for the first time in club colours since October, was bright on the left, ahead of Ryan Bertrand, deputising for the injured Ashley Cole.
Ramires sliced wide but Chris Hughton's makeshift defence resisted well and Doyle was rarely tested in the first half. Yet, when defending counter-attacks and set-pieces, Chelsea did not look comfortable and Petr Cech was forced to scramble backwards and turn a diving header from Nijola Zigic over before the interval.
Packs a punch: Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech stretches to repel a Birmingham cross
Zigic had stitches in a cut above his left eye, after taking a boot in the face from David Luiz. Zigic was clearly unhappy and sought retribution but it was on Gary Cahill and earned the first booking of the night. It was his header from Jordan Mutch's cross which nearly embarrassed the expensive central defensive partnership.
The breakthough came from Mata. Ramires stole the ball from Mutch on the right and Kalou fought down his cross in the goalmouth. It spilled to Mata who adjusted quickly and poked a shot inside the post.
At full stretch: Birmingham's Serbian striker Nikola Zigic controls the ball under pressure
Mata then headed narrowly wide and Meireles soon pounced to score a wonderful second. Again it came from a move down the right and Ramires eased a short pass into his path and the Portuguese midfielder lashed a right-footer into the top corner.
He refused to celebrate, pushing his team-mates away. It seems someone is after all mourning the loss of AVB.
Torres was fouled for a penalty but Mata, having shrugged off Sturridge, saw his kick saved by Doyle, just as in the first game.
On the spot: Mata saw his penalty saved once again by Birmingham keeper Colin Doyle