Chelsea wobble but remain on course for double after FA Cup win vs. Wolves
WOLVERHAMPTON, England -- Three quick thoughts from Chelsea's 2-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday.
1. Chelsea wobble but stay on track for double
Chelsea remain on track for a Premier League and FA Cup double, although they had far from their own way against a bold Wolves side at Molineux. A header by Pedro midway through the second half and a sharp late finish by Diego Costa sealed their place in the quarterfinals, but the home side, who had won at Liverpool in the fourth round, were the better team in the first half and the scoreline was harsh.
Buoyed by a capacity crowd at Molineux, the Championship team came out firing and missed a glorious chance to take the lead in the fifth minute. When Conor Coady's right-sided cross rebounded awkwardly off Kurt Zouma, George Saville had a clear sight of goal 12 yards out. His half-volley beat Asmir Begovic but thudded off the goalkeeper's left post. It was agonising for the home side, but Saville, who joined Wolves from Chelsea in 2014, had let his old club off the hook.
Wolves were brighter but Willian, seeing his attempted lob blocked by Carl Ikeme from Cesc Fabregas' pass, almost made them pay within minutes. In terms of clear chances, that was it for the first half. Chelsea probed for periods, but on the whole it was Wolves who looked the more threatening. Had Matt Doherty's 35th-minute delivery been a couple of centimeters lower, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson would surely have headed them into an interval lead.
Spurred on by the incursions of right winger Helder Costa, Wolves began the second period at a similar speed. But as the game passed the hour mark, Chelsea finally began to assert a measure of control, and Costa, with his first genuine sight of goal, shot into the side netting from an angle after twisting and turning on the right side of the penalty area.
The warning signs were starting to appear, and in the 65th minute, quality told. Willian, allowed a pocket of space just inside the box, chipped over a precise cross and Pedro, completely unmarked after running in from the left, nodded a well-directed header into the bottom corner.
Chelsea's tails were up. Fabregas began to find his range once more and created openings for Victor Moses and Willian, neither of which brought a convincing shot at goal. Fabregas himself missed a chance to double the lead late on, but Costa, seizing on a loose ball from close range, made no mistake with moments remaining.
2. Chelsea defence passes audition
Antonio Conte will be pleased to have successfully navigated an old-fashioned FA Cup tie, although there may be a measure of concern about the time it took for Chelsea to feel their way into this tie. On the one hand, they rode out the kind of boisterous performance you would expect from lower-division opponents; on the other, a side with more quality at the sharp end might have given them an even tougher night.
Yet a clean sheet was welcome and may have intensified the competition between their back three -- Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma and John Terry -- to stake their claims for more Premier League action, effectively as first reserve to the current finely tuned machine. They were given a tough workout by Bodvarsson, a busy customer who peeled into channels at every opportunity, and his movement gave Zouma in particular headaches during a hurly-burly first half.
But Wolves lacked a penalty box presence, and on the whole, Chelsea's back line stood firm. Crosses were repelled with relative comfort and Ake, who grew into his second Chelsea start after beginning nervously, looked especially comfortable on the ball. While Zouma will want to forget the early mistake that let in Saville, as well as an ambitious charge forward and horribly sliced shot off target that came just before Pedro's goal, his performance was ultimately another positive step on his return from injury.
The defence's contribution was important on a day when the rest of the side lacked balance at times. While Eden Hazard, Costa and Pedro all remained from their regular Premier League lineup, the second-string midfield pair of Fabregas and Nathaniel Chalobah struggled to impose themselves until the game stretched out in the last half hour, the latter in particular struggling to emulate the intensity brought so reliably by N'Golo Kante. The ball came back at Chelsea far too often during the first half, with Wolves' midfield looking hungrier and more industrious. Judging by his gesticulations on the touchline, it was a turn of events that displeased their manager.
But they got the job done, eventually exerting full control in the last 25 minutes. As an audition for Chelsea's squad players, this was inconclusive, but Conte will know that they were capable of grinding out a win here.
3. Wolves make mockery of Championship toils
On this evidence, Wolves' struggles in the Championship are a mystery. This was a performance of endeavour and quality that had Chelsea on the ropes at times, and they will reflect that the evening might have taken a distinctly different hue had Saville put that chance away early on.
A broadly positive night amounted to further respite from a miserable season that, from excitement at their summer takeover by Chinese investors Fosun Group and a number of expensive additions, has spiraled into a battle with relegation to League One. They sit five points above the relegation zone but had little to lose on this, a throwback to their Premier League days of earlier this decade, and their manager Paul Lambert had made little secret of his desire to approach the game on the front foot.
They did exactly that, operating at a tempo that prevented Chelsea finding any genuine rhythm. They won the midfield battle before the break, David Edwards setting the tone with his running and alertness between the boxes. Bodvarsson was a tireless runner at centre-forward and Costa -- a £13 million signing from Benfica -- probed threateningly.
Costa repeatedly sought to expose the space behind Pedro, Chelsea's left-wing-back and earned the Spaniard a booking after dancing past him in the 49th minute. At that stage Chelsea were on the rack, but Wolves, perhaps tiring and certainly deflated after Pedro's goal, could not really maintain their pace and thrust despite a few late flurries.
Their performance should, though, be a feather in the cap for Lambert: he knew Chelsea needed to be approached with a high-pressing, high-intensity game plan, and his players carried it out to the letter. They should not be too concerned that quality eventually told. Now they need a run of consistent performances like this to save their Championship season.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.