Chelsea produced a fine second-half display to eventually brush aside Leeds United 5-1 at Elland Road on Wedensday and book their place in the semifinals of the Capital One Cup.
Having competed in the FIFA Club World Cup Final in Japan just three days earlier, this is a tie that Chelsea boss Rafael Benitez will doubtless be mightily relieved to have got through. His anxiety about the match at the home of their historic rivals will have only been increased when Luciano Becchio put Leeds into a first-half lead. But Chelsea responded with an impressive second-half performance to run out convincing winners with goals from Juan Mata, Branislav Ivanovic, Victor Moses, Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres.
Chelsea will meet Swansea in the semifinals, with the first leg taking place in the week of January 7 and the return match two weeks later.
With the list of attainable trophies rapidly dwindling for Chelsea this season, Benitez showed the importance that the League Cup held by fielding a strong lineup, only seriously weakened through injury and suspensions.
Perhaps unsurprising for the first meeting between the two old foes in nearly nine years, the match began in a feisty style in front of a fired up Elland Road. Michael Brown and Frank Lampard were particularly involved in some tasty challenges in the early stages.
It was Chelsea who soon settled in their rhythm, though, and began to control the contest.
Seconds after Moses went down after being challenged from behind by Brown in the area that left him understandably screaming for a penalty, the winger struck a powerful shot from the edge of the box that Ashdown had to dive to palm away.
But it was the home side that would take the lead with a textbook counter attack after David Luiz, on a typical maraud forward saw his pass intercepted. The ball reached the sprightly Jerome Thomas on the left, who produced a perfect low cross with the outside of his right foot to find the unmarked Becchio to side-foot home first time.
Chelsea stepped up the pressure after going behind, but their endeavors in the first half would be confined to efforts from distance that Ashdown was equal to on each occasion. Lampard looked as keen as ever to strike from range, but was thwarted both from open play and from a dipping free-kick.
To Leeds’ credit, they also might have increased their lead if Tom Lees hadn’t missed a very presentable chance when he headed over from El Hadj Diouf’s cross.
But barely a minute into the second half, Ashdown undid his good work from the opening period. A neat exchange of passes saw the ball arrive to Mata in a central position 20 yards out with the opportunity to shoot. The Spaniard’s low effort zipped off the wet surface but should still have been comfortable for the Leeds goalkeeper, yet crept under his outstretched arm.
Ashdown tried to redeem himself as he saved first from a Torres header from close range and then from yet another Lampard strike, but the goals would soon flow for the visitors as they upped the tempo and cut Leeds apart.
There was little Ashdown could do in the 64th minute as Ivanovic got to the near post first to head home Lampard’s corner.
Then just two minutes later the tie looked to have been put beyond the home side as Chelsea made it 3-1. Moses, enjoying a regular run in the side under Rafael Benitez, repaid his manager’s faith not only with his direct running but with a crashing drive past Ashdown from 25 yards out.
While Leeds were still gamely pushing for a way back into the contest, Chelsea’s quality shone through once more with just under 10 minutes remaining. Luiz showed his ability on the ball with a wonderful pass from inside his own half to release substitute Hazard through the middle and the Belgian slotted the ball past Ashdown.
Perhaps somewhat harshly on Leeds, the rout was completed with seven minutes left on the clock. Ashdown saved a Lampard shot from distance for the umpteenth time in the contest, but the ball only reached Hazard, who slid the ball across the six-yard box for the previously poorly performing Torres to tap home the simplest of finishes.