Chelsea 6-1 Middlesbrough (6-2 on aggregate) (Howson OG 15’, Fernandez 29’, Disasi 36’, Palmer 42’, 77’, Madueke 81’ | Rogers 88′)
STAMFORD BRIDGE – All season needless distractions have abounded at Stamford Bridge but finally, a dose of escapism worth celebrating: Chelsea are marching to Wembley. An emphatic 6-1 victory over Middlesbrough teed up a Carabao Cup final against Fulham or Liverpool, who play on Wednesday night.
It says much about the mood surrounding the Blues’ season that before kick-off there had been such doubt. Todd Boehly’s magical mystery tour never feels far away, with adverts for upcoming spy film Argylle once again featuring on the back of the players’ training kits. Fans had been equally infuriated by a new Hilton suite being built inside the Matthew Harding Stand.
For the briefest of opening spells, it looked as though Middlesbrough had been invited to set up their own camp in Chelsea’s half, before Michael Carrick’s side capitulated to undo their 1-0 advantage from the first leg.
The breakthrough came, predictably, from a Ben Chilwell run, threading an exquisite ball into Raheem Sterling, who squared it to Armando Broja. An attack so allergic to shooting properly might have made a mess of it, but Broja took enough of a touch to invite Jonny Howson to make the challenge, and it bounced off the Boro captain on its way in.
It was almost enough to ease the fraught nerves of Mauricio Pochettino, whose midfield placings risked leaving Moises Caicedo isolated.
Enzo Fernandez’s more advanced role was vindicated when the second goal came, Axel Disasi bringing the ball back to Broja from the right. By the time Fernandez had finished, it felt scrappy but Chelsea have been in no place to complain about aesthetics.
Carrick, for his part, was forlorn. A famous upset had been dashed, Sterling setting up Disasi’s tap-in for the third and Boro midfielder Daniel Barlaser gifting Cole Palmer the fourth through thoughtless playing out from the back.
Palmer had Conor Gallagher’s wrestling through the defence to thank for the fifth, poked into the far corner, while Noni Madueke had to nod to Rav van den Berg for his effort.
Paddy McNair, Tommy Smith, Darragh Lenihan and Emmanuel Latte Lath were desperately missed. Until his late long range consolation strike, Aston Villa target Morgan Rogers did not take his chance to grab Unai Emery’s attention. A vociferous away end, blessed with a sense of gallows humour, only grew louder: “We’ve scored a goal.”
Boro will hope a date at Wembley is not beyond their grasp this season, sitting in 11th three points off the play-offs, but they have been drifting. At present, there is a conflict between Carrick’s good work and the elementary errors that suggest they are a long way off the Premier League pack.
The fairytale is over for those Teessiders who had been ready to dream but Chelsea needed this. They have not won this competition since 2015, when they beat Pochettino’s Tottenham in the final. Had Chelsea gone out, it would have been a catastrophic indictment of where his project is at.
Instead, with Christopher Nkunku injured and Nicolas Jackson at the Africa Cup of Nations (albeit yet to play a minute), Chelsea proved the goals can come from elsewhere, even with 10 players missing.
The coming days remain crucial, with Villa in the FA Cup here on Friday, but Chelsea’s season is likely to be defined under the Wembley arch on 25 February.