ROMELU LUKAKU’S 12TH goal of the season set Chelsea on their way to the FA Cup semi-finals in serene fashion as the club’s off-field problems were once again put to one side.
A comfortable 2-0 sixth-round victory at Championship Middlesbrough provided a more than satisfactory conclusion to a difficult week, where the Blues’ future ownership and current operational difficulties attracted far more attention than their efforts on the pitch.
Lukaku’s 15th-minute strike and delicious second from Hakim Ziyech had the tie wrapped up long before half-time as Thomas Tuchel’s men progressed with the minimum of fuss in pursuit of their ninth taste of glory in club football’s oldest competition.
Fewer than 700 Chelsea fans had made it to Teesside as a result of a restriction on ticket sales under sanctions imposed on owner Roman Abramovich, but it proved a relaxing evening as their side cruised to victory in a repeat of the 1997 final.
Boro, who donated the gate receipts to humanitarian aid in Ukraine, found themselves having to defend deep and in numbers as the visitors, prompted by Mateo Kovacic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic, passed and moved patiently in their quest for an early breakthrough.
It arrived with 15 minutes gone when Ziyech found Mason Mount in space down the right and he sent the ball across goal, where defender Dael Fry inexplicably failed to intervene, in the process handing Lukaku the simplest of tasks from point-blank range.
The pace and endeavour of Isaiah Jones and Marcus Tavernier kept the Teessiders in the contest, and with skipper Jonny Howson snapping into tackles in the middle of the field, Tuchel’s side knew they were in a game.
Lukaku had to head Tavernier’s 26th-minute free-kick clear and Folarin Balogun was unable to hit the target when the resulting corner fell to him as the Championship outfit prospered, although Premier League quality was brought to bear in devastating style 14 minutes before the break.
Boro pressed high as Thiago Silva and keeper Edouard Mendy attempted to play out from the back, but Malang Sarr sprang the trap with a pass to Kovacic, who combined with Mount to allow Ziyech to step inside full-back Neil Taylor and fire an unstoppable shot across Joe Lumley and inside the far post.
Lukaku was denied his second of the game by the alert Anfernee Dijksteel after rounding Lumley from Pulisic’s deflected through-ball, but the home side’s cause looked forlorn as they trudged off at the break.
Fry made way for Sol Bamba to popular acclaim before the restart and Balogun might have done better after being set up Matt Crooks after he had been picked out by Jones five minutes into the second half.
Chris Wilder’s side – who had knocked out Manchester United and Tottenham in the two previous rounds – battled manfully as time ran down with Jones and substitute Duncan Watmore adding new zest.
However, they lacked the cutting edge to trouble a defence marshalled expertly by 37-year-old Silva enough to drag themselves back into the game.
Timo Werner might have added a third but for a block by Bamba and fellow substitute Josh Coburn forced a late save from Mendy at the other end, but the job was done.