Mikel the unlikely FA Cup hero for Chelsea

Posted by Phil Lythell

Michael Regan/Getty Images John Obi Mikel, left, scored the opener in Chelsea's spirited 2-0 FA Cup win at Derby County.

Chelsea emerged from their keenly fought FA Cup third-round match against Derby County with a well-deserved 2-0 win.

- Delaney: Three things: Derby County vs. Chelsea
- Report: Derby County 0-2 Chelsea

It was a compelling cup tie that will have gratified both teams to differing degrees, with each doing themselves justice and providing a good spectacle for the paying public. That was certainly helped as Jose Mourinho kept his prematch promise to field a strong lineup, despite the multitude of key games that his team had faced over the Christmas period when he would have been well within his right to rest some of his more important players.

Though one might have considered this the perfect opportunity to give the likes of Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne a run-out along with some of those from the reserve ranks, the incoming players had the pedigree of David Luiz, Michael Essien and Samuel Eto'o -- all veterans of Champions League finals. Eden Hazard might have started on the sidelines, but the fact that Oscar and Willian -- the game-changers against Southampton on New Year's Day -- were selected hinted that Mourinho is taking the FA Cup rather more seriously than Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert or West Ham manager Sam Allardyce. That Chelsea have greater resources than Aston Villa and West Ham is without doubt, though it was still good to see the Blues give something back to the competition that has been so good to them over the past 16 years.

With Chelsea exhibiting the desire and intention to win this game by naming such a strong starting 11, a huge amount of credit must be given to Derby for restricting the visitors to very few clear-cut chances in the first hour of the contest. The Rams' team shape was superb and began with the strikers defending from the front, though without hindering any of their own attacking play. Steve McClaren has got his team extremely well organized, and for all Chelsea's flair, they often found the route to goal blocked through smart defensive positioning and cohesive teamwork from the opposition.

The Blues' creative triumvirate were also a little guilty of overplaying at times; taking an extra touch or playing an extra pass when a more direct path appeared to provide greater promise. The temptation to gild the lily when there are so many talented teammates alongside must be hard to ignore, though often simple football is the most effective. Given the desire to paint pretty patterns on the pitch, it was rather ironic that the opening goal eventually arrived via a set piece; with the irony deepening still with the crucial touch coming from none other than John Obi Mikel. This is turning into a relatively prolific season for the Nigerian, with his header taking him to two goals for the campaign (and his Chelsea career). Mikel, however, will have Willian to thank for a delicious delivery that was begging to be guided into the net, an invitation to which Mikel duly obliged.

After the deadlock had been broken, the game inevitably opened up even further, with Derby keen to restore parity and thus leaving gaps for Chelsea to exploit in the process. The irrepressible Oscar doubled the advantage with a thumping right-foot shot and the floodgates threatened to open for the Blues. That they didn't was thanks to Lee Grant in the Derby goal, who made two excellent stops against substitute Fernando Torres, ensuring his side still had a foothold in the game. Derby's reaction was positive and it took Grant's opposite number, Mark Schwarzer, to smartly thwart Chris Martin moments later to deny a passionate Pride Park a grandstand finish.

This was a cup-tie in the fine tradition of the FA Cup with two teams -- an underdog from the Football League hosting one of Europe's big hitters -- playing good, proactive football in front of a full and noisy stadium. It was also played in an excellent spirit with not a bad challenge in sight and some genuine bonhomie on the touchline between the two rival managers.

Mourinho has often talked about his love for English football and how he missed so many of its aspects when he was in Italy and Spain. While this game might not have been a five-goal thriller or played at breakneck speed, it still showcased so many of the game's traditional virtues and highlighted just why the FA Cup still has a burning relevance in today's commercialised game.

Roll on Stoke City in the fourth round.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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