For the second match running, Jose Mourinho made a crucial substitution just a few minutes into the second half, and for the second match running, that change paid the proper dividends. Second half goals from Mikel (!!) and Oscar eventually made simple work of the hosts who never quite looked to have an answer to one goal, let alone two. Chelsea have greeted the new year with five goals and two clean sheets in two matches, this victory in the FA Cup third round proper the proverbial bow on an excellent holiday season.
The job didn't always look easy, especially in a hectic, back-and-forth opening fifteen minutes. Derby County - one of the favorites for promotion from the Championship - fielded their strongest available lineup and they were motivated and capable of dealing adequately with Chelsea's early pressing. Mourinho opted for a much-changed, somewhat odd construction from midweek, rotating over half the starting lineup. Petr Cech, John Terry, Eden Hazard all got deserved rests - a luxury we could easily afford with quality replacements at the ready in Mark Schwarzer, David Luiz, and Willian. In addition, Oscar, Samuel Eto'o, and Michael Essien were preferred instead of Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, and André Schürrle.
Essien's inclusion gave hope for the return of the 4-3-3 but Chelsea stuck with the default 4-2-3-1, Ramires moving to right wing, where he succeeded as capably as one would normally expect. While he came close twice with a miss just inches wide and a left-footer that pinged off the far post just before half time, he was hardly a danger otherwise. Alongside and along with Willian and Oscar, Ramires provided plenty of early energy, but the usefulness of their pressing and running waned as Derby sat back and parked the bus.
As that familiar, frustrating pattern emerged, Chelsea resorted to long shots, none of which forced Lee Grant into a save. The passing was not quite fast and creative enough and Derby stayed strong, compact, and organized. Our best chance came from a forced turnover, Mikel stepping in to dispossess and immediately release Samuel Eto'o 1-v-1 against the goalkeeper, which the Cameroonian then promptly wasted with some slow indecisiveness (or was that indecisive slowness?). Meanwhile, the hosts' only threat came from our own defensive lapses, not helped by David Luiz's early knock.
Just like on Wednesday, the match turned on a substitution. In came Eden Hazard, out went Michael Essien, and suddenly the lineup had a much more familiar, much more promising shape to it. Ramires returned to the pivot alongside Mikel and the in-form trio of Hazard-Oscar-Willian were reunited. The Blues looked buoyant and Derby retreated further and further. David Luiz went on a marauding run and even Ashley Cole popped up in the opposition's penalty area, something not seen since the Stone Age.
The Chelsea goal promptly arrived ten minutes later, just after the hour mark. Hazard won the free kick, which Willian - having brought along his set piece-taking A-game today - promptly delivered onto Mikel's head. All the ball needed was a little flick, such was the pace and accuracy of Willian's gift. And so it came to pass that on the occasion of his 300th Chelsea appearance, Mikel scored his 4th Chelsea goal. Written in the stars. Or perhaps it was all in the armband, which Essien saw fit to bequeath to the Nigerian even though it should've actually gone to Ashley Cole.
Five minutes later - but not quite soon enough, as Ramires found time to get booked, quite rightly, for a dive - Oscar put the match beyond doubt, blasting home from 13 yards. See what happens when we don't just throw the ball to the opposition, Cesar? It was Dave (the Rat)'s throw-in that
Torres Hazard flicked on to Oscar. Torres - having just come on for the ineffective Eto'o - could have (and should have) gotten on the scoresheet at least once and maybe twice in the ensuing minutes and Ramires managed to hit the woodwork once more, but all that would've been just a bit too perfect.
In the end, it was a comfortable, expected victory for the boys in Blue. Even Lewis Baker, the outstanding 18-year-old Chelsea academy midfielder, got to make his debut. It was a good day, despite the slow, indifferent start. We now come home to face and take revenge on Stoke City in the fourth round in three weeks' time.