Ake stars as Benitez snaps following Chelsea FA Cup win

Posted by Phil Lythell

A win, a replay avoided and key players rested - all in all, Chelsea's 2-0 win over Middlesbrough in the fifth round of the FA Cup delivered what was required.

- Angry Benitez fires broadside

The game was not without its concerns, though. Eight changes might have been made from the team that started against Manchester City on Sunday, yet the European champions were made to toil for a large period of the game at the Riverside Stadium. The first half was Chelsea's season in microcosm. A bright start ultimately faded into nothingness as a failure to capitalise on openings created or maintain any momentum saw halftime arrive without a goal from the boys in blue, just like against Leeds United and both matches against Brentford, each of which was also lower league opposition.

The lack of confidence throughout the team -- perfectly encapsulated by Fernando Torres -- means that any spurned chance results in players retreating from responsibility in the hope that one of their colleagues might seize the initiative. Thankfully, in Eden Hazard, Chelsea have a player whom they can call on who never hides or shirks his duties except, at times, defensively. The Belgian's introduction from the substitutes' bench at the expense of Yossi Benayoun was the pivotal moment in this tie, with his direct running and tricky feet proving too hot for the Championship side to handle.

Driving at defenders with impeccable balance, he drew his opponents away from his teammates to create space for others and his interchange with Oscar and Victor Moses for the second goal was the standout moment of the match. There have been a few questions asked of Hazard following a dip in form and effectiveness during the back end of 2012, though he remains a player who possesses genuine world-class ability and a knack for changing games in favour of his team. It would be nice if a few others were able to follow his - and Juan Mata's - example.

As vital as Hazard's performance was, his was not the most impressive display of the evening. Nathan Ake started his first match for the senior team and shone from start to finish. It is hard to gauge a young player's prospects based on one first-team outing, especially when it is against opposition from a tier below that has lost seven of its previous nine league matches, but he made as eye-catching a debut as you can in such circumstances.

Stationed alongside Ramires as one of two defensive midfielders, the young Dutchman patrolled his area of the pitch with authority and showed excellent timing in regards to making challenges and intercepting the play. Just as encouraging was Ake's eye for a pass and on a number of occasions he was able to pick out an incisive first-time, pinpoint pass to set the team motoring in the right direction.

For a club that rarely bloods its youngsters, it was refreshing to see a youthful talent be given his chance, yet at the same time it was strange to see John Terry play a full 90 minutes. Rafael Benitez omitted the club captain from the team that played at the Etihad Stadium, citing a lack of fitness from his full participation against Sparta Prague last Thursday. Giving a player a run out to gain physical sharpness is fully understandable, though it seems strange to prioritise his minutes in the Cup competitions over the greater imperative that is a top-four finish in the Premier League.

In any case, it is hard to know precisely what the Spaniard's aims are now that he has made it clear that he doesn't see his future at Chelsea. In a postmatch interview he described his appointment as interim manager as a "massive mistake," which is something that almost every supporter will agree with. His subsequent complaints about the fans not supporting him and actively singing songs against him do have a certain validity -- such a rancorous atmosphere is never going to do the players on the pitch any favours -- but it does mean that those dissenting voices will grow ever louder over Benitez's final few weeks at Stamford Bridge.

Such a display of defiance is unlikely to go down well with Roman Abramovich, who might see fit to make yet another change in the dugout as a result, especially should the match against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday not go according to plan. However Benitez's time in charge had gone he was never likely to win the hearts and minds of the club's supporters, though an upturn in fortunes on the playing field might well have seen any open dissent quelled.

Unfortunately for everyone, he has failed to arrest the slide and he cannot be surprised at such displeasure. Whatever he is or isn't, Benitez is not a stupid man and he would have been well aware of what he was letting himself in for when he took the job. His complaints about the fans' protests causing the team harm might have foundation, but publicly rising to the bait, however understandably, could prove to be just as counterproductive.

Nevertheless, Chelsea will travel to Manchester United in the next round of the FA Cup and -- should he still be in the post -- Benitez will be able to lock horns once again with another old foe, Sir Alex Ferguson. At least a disdain for Britain's most decorated manager is something that both the Chelsea interim manager and the club's fans have in common.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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