Football Features

Mauricio Pochettino’s full-backs put on a show as Chelsea secure record-equaling EFL Cup semi-final win

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:05, 23 January 2024

Chelsea booked a return to Wembley with a 6-1 thrashing of Middlesbrough in their EFL Cup semi-final second leg.

The Blues trailed 1-0 from the first leg a few weeks ago and it felt as though the pressure was on Mauricio Pochettino, who couldn’t afford failure here. The big news when the XIs were announced was the return of Ben Chilwell, with the Chelsea vice captain starting for the first time in four months after injury.

And oh how Chelsea have missed him. Over the past few years — no matter the manager — Chelsea’s play has been very much built around their full-backs. And as both Chilwell and Reece James have suffered through various injury problems, Chelsea’s form has dipped as a result.

This season, Pochettino’s remedy for the left-back problem has been to play Levi Colwill out there, even when Marc Cucurella has been available. Overall, it hasn’t worked, especially in the first leg of this time as Colwill was run ragged by Isaiah Jones.

There was a hairy moment early on defensively as Chilwell was dragged too far infield, opening up space for Middlesbrough on his flank, but on the ball the Englishman helped Chelsea take control. With the ball on the edge of the Middlesbrough box, Chilwell played a lovely pass inside to Raheem Sterling, whose run was well-timed.

Sterling then cut the ball back to Armando Broja, slightly behind, and while the Albanian striker hesitated, Jonny Howson was unable to stop his run and bundled the ball in. Inside 15 minutes, Chelsea were back level in the tie. And although Middlesbrough had a chance almost immediately after, the game didn’t really look like ending in anything other than a Chelsea win.

Just before the half-hour mark, Chelsea went ahead on aggregate, and this time the other full-back was involved. Axel Disasi has started at right-back a few times this season, and was there once again on Tuesday, with James and Malo Gusto injured. Unlike Colwill, he’s looked more comfortable on the right than he has at centre-back, and against Middlesbrough he linked up well with Raheem Sterling.

It was the interplay between the two that helped create the second goal, with Disasi crossing the ball to Broja. The striker’s attempt was blocked but it fell kindly to Enzo Fernandez who readjusted his body to sweep the ball home.

Then Disasi really got involved. The third goal started with Disasi intercepting a pass in the middle of the pitch, and he kept his run going. Cole Palmer played a neat pass to Sterling who sent the ball into the box for, you guessed it, Disasi to finish coolly past Tom Glover.

Of his performance, Disasi told Sky Sports: “Today was a great game after losing the first game.

“I’m happy because we showed another face and deserved to win. For me, it will be the first time I go to Wembley so I’m happy about this.

“After the first game, we were all angry and the coach said we had to push and play hard. He put me at right-back and I tried to do my best for the team.

“We have to keep this mentality in the league also to win more games. I think we are in a good way and need to stay focused.”

The game was over by half-time with Cole Palmer robbing Daniel Barlaser on the edge of the Middlesbrough area before keeping his composure, banishing the demons of his first-leg performance.

Palmer would add another goal in the second half, his sixth at Stamford Bridge this season — more than any of his teammates — but not before a substitution brought the end of Chelsea’s full-back pairing. Understandable, Chilwell was taken off in the 65th minute, with Pochettino not wanting to strain his return. Alfie Gilchrist came on at right-back, with Colwill switching to the left and Disasi moving into the centre.

Chilwell ended his game with 58 touches, six duels won, two tackles, one chance created and 38 of his 40 passes completed. Not a bad return at all.

Noni Madueke added a sixth with 10 minutes to go but Morgan Rogers pulled one back late on for Middlesbrough, ending Chelsea’s clean sheet. Nevertheless, it was still the joint-biggest EFL Cup semi-final second leg victory, matching Liverpool’s 5-0 win over Crystal Palace in 2000/01. It was also just the second time a team had scored six goals in an EFL Cup semi-final second leg, after Aston Villa vs Blackburn in 2009/10.

Could this be the start of something special at Chelsea? Former Middlesbrough midfielder Stewart Downing thinks it could be, telling BBC Radio 5 Live at half-time: “This has been the Chelsea team that came to play tonight. They have come with a different mindset.

“They know there is a big day out at Chelsea. They know what is at stake and they know they have the whole world to prove wrong. They have spent a lot of money and it is starting to look like it is money well spent, this project.

“It looks like it is starting to get off the ground.”