It’s a good thing they don’t give out style points in the FA Cup. Chelsea progressed to the quarterfinals for the second straight season by seeing off a spirited effort from Wolves, but if anyone was looking for a reaction to that tepid showing at Turf Moor last weekend, they were unlikely to find it. Despite a strong selection from Antonio Conte, who threw most of his star names into the fray, Wolves stifled the Blues throughout and were perhaps unlucky to find themselves down 2-0 when full time arrived.
Indeed, Paul Lambert’s side should have been a goal up within the first few minutes. Kurt Zouma’s form has been understandably wobbly since his return from a long-term layoff, and his failure to cut out a cross presented the unmarked George Saville with a golden opportunity from the penalty spot. Saville, whom you’ll probably remember spending a full decade in Chelsea’s academy and loan system, beat Asmir Begovic with a slicing drive, but let the ball bend too wide and saw his effort crack back off the inside of the post.
The Blues looked in position to take advantage of that let-off. With Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Willian all up front, they had plenty of firepower with which to threaten Carl Ikeme’s goal, and Cesc Fabregas was more than happy to pump long passes behind the Wolves defence for them to chase. The hosts’ line bent but didn’t quite break. Willian came closest to putting Chelsea ahead, but a poor touch, a smart stop and a swarm of orange shirts denied him.
Wolves had reached the fifth round via an impressive 2-1 win at Anfield, and so clearly were not to be taken too lightly despite their league position. But Chelsea seemed intent on making things difficult for themselves — once Wolves had started closing down Fabregas in midfield they didn’t seem to have much clue how to move the ball properly, which cut Hazard and Costa out of the match entirely. And whenever either of them did get the ball, they’d contrive to lose it again immediately via a misplaced pass or blind flick. If that reminds you of the Burnley draw, you’re not alone.
Fortunately Wolves aren’t quite as frightening at Molineux as Burnley are at Turf Moor, and after a mostly wasted hour Chelsea began applying real pressure to their hosts. Costa was the first to come to life, twisting Danny Batth into silly putty before firing a free shot into the side netting. Three minutes later, the rest of the team joined the party.
Fabregas flung the ball down the channel for Costa to chase, and the big striker managed to secure possession and feed back to Hazard at the top of the box. Wolves were streaming back in numbers, but there were still spaces to exploit: Hazard picked out Willian, whose floated cross back into the box was met by Pedro with a thumping header to make it 1-0.
Pedro, starting at wingback, had endured a difficult time tracking Helder Costa, and hadn’t been able to get forward as much as he’d have liked, which may have contributed to Chelsea’s pre-goal stodginess. But he contributed when it counted, taking advantage of the mismatches that the 3-4-3 provides to head the Blues into the lead.
Once ahead, the spell that seemed to be slowing everyone down was broken. Chelsea quickly found themselves in a position to double their advantage when Hazard’s smart pass found Fabregas in shooting position. His shot, however, was shanked well wide, and Conte decided to defend the lead rather than go for broke.
On came Cesar Azpilicueta and N’Golo Kante, which seemed a little unfair to poor Wolves. Nathan Ake, who looked far more comfortable as part of a back three than Zouma or John Terry, shuffled over to wingback, and Chelsea switched to a 3-5-2. Ruben Loftus-Cheek eventually joined the party, coming in for Hazard to partner Costa.
Early mistake aside, Wolves didn’t look all that threatening to begin with. After the defensive moves? They didn’t really have a chance. A cross or two caused momentary consternation before being dealt with, but when hopeful deliveries are the closest we get to heart-in-mouth moments we’re in pretty good shape as far as stress goes.
Injury time was rendered even less stressful by Costa finally breaking his goal drought. Kante and Fabregas attempted to play their way into the Wolves box, and although their move broke down, the ball broke to Costa, and his first-time shot gave Ikeme no chance. At 2-0, the game was well and truly over, leaving us looking forward to whatever the sixth round brings.