JUAN Mata rolled home a controversial second half penalty to see Chelsea edge out Queens Park Rangers in a drab FA Cup encounter.
Daniel Sturridge hurled himself to the floor with Clint Hill in close attention – while many were calling for the striker to be booked for diving, referee Mike Dean inexplicably pointed to the spot.
In fairness to the visiting side, they controlled a lot of the encounter with the cut and thrust of Rangers earlier this campaign, evidently not translated into what was a lifeless FA Cup fixture.
A match that was afforded all the media hype of a classic encounter; heroes and villans, handshakes and hooliganism, provided little in terms of genuine opportunity as the game developed into somewhat of a damp squib.
A smattering of efforts flashed across the target and Luke Young’s late blockbuster was all that Rangers could offer in riposte to the visitor’s second half spot-kick as Mark Hughes can now firmly concentrate on Premier League football.
Mark Hughes made one enforced change from the side that defeated Wigan Athletic last week, goalscorer Tommy Smith earning a spot in the starting 11, at the expense of DJ Campbell who nursed a hamstring complaint.
Paddy Kenny started behind a back four of Luke Young, Fitz Hall, Anton Ferdinand and Clint Hill. The midfield quartet comprised of Jamie Mackie, Joey Barton, Ákos Buzsáky and Shaun Wright-Phillips, with Tommy Smith sitting just behind Heidar Helguson in attack.
Chelsea started with Petr Cech behind a defence of Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, David Luiz and Ashley Cole. Florent Malouda, Raul Meireles and Ramires were the midfield trio with Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata playing off Fernando Torres.
KICK OFF: QUEENS PARK RANGERS v CHELSEA
The pre-match discussion surrounded the more trivialised elements of a bigger debate. John Terry is due in court next week facing charges relating to racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, a charge he denies.
This was trivialised in the sense that there were bookies taking bets on whether handshakes would be observed, serving only to remove the thorns from what is a prickly issue indeed in terms of the England captain’s future.
A hot reception was afforded for Terry in W12 as one would come to expect, but the formality of handshakes were dispensed of – much to the chagrin of the baying haud of photographers that didn’t get their lucrative shot.
The fixture opened with the visiting side looking to control possession in a cauldron of noise at Loftus Road – manager Andre Villas-Boas evidently preparing his side far better for this encounter than the previous excursion into W12.
The side from SW6 were patient and cautious in their approach, playing out from the back and using the midfield creativity of Raul Meireles to scythe open what appeared a disciplined Rangers rearguard.
The opening ten minutes reflected this mentality with only Daniel Sturridge’s speculative drive threatening to provide a sniff of an opportunity. As it stood the organisation of the hosts was proving difficult to break down.
Juan Mata then rounded off some neat passing play by firing a drive straight at QPR stopper Paddy Kenny. His parry was pounced on by Luke Young and hacked away for safety by the former Aston Villa man.
Rangers once again were not looking comfortable in possession, needless surrender on the ball would create pressure on the hosts’ defensive unit – who in fairness were coping admirably despite the intentions of the hapless Fernando Torres.
The only opportunity in the early offing for QPR saw Joey Barton clip a tame volley wide of Petr Cech’s right hand upright – the level of ambition probably did not match QPR’s efforts earlier this campaign, but it would be fair to say that the organisation was far superior.
The fixture entered somewhat of a lull as both side’s creative talents failed to light the spark on a particularly uneventful FA Cup tie. Wright-Phillips in particular was well-marshalled by Ivanovic while Jamie Mackie was seemingly unable to wreak his brand of havoc down the right.
Speak to any Chelsea supporter and they will tell you his lack of end product was damning – easy then to see this being played out at Loftus Road as his skill threatened but never ultimately punished the visiting side.
He was afforded a yellow by referee Dean after losing control of the ball and tackling Ivanovic with a little more vigour than was legally allowed – sadly endemic of another poor touch where it mattered most for the enterprising wide-man.
Raul Meireles was next to try his luck ten minutes before the break – prodding a placed volley just wide to Kenny’s right – while Wright-Phillips let fly with an errant right-footed drive, high, wide and handsome of the right hand-upright.
Even QPR’s set pieces had an air of resignation to them, all placed either too far by the far upright or failing to beat the man on the near post – David Luiz nonchalantly clearing on numerous occasions to Rangers’ frustration.
Ramires and Malouda went close before the break but the two sides went in goalless – with relatively few opportunities helping compound a first half bereft of creativity and that extra spark required to reignite a flagging encounter.
HALF TIME: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0-0 CHELSEA
Mark Hughes reacted by withdrawing Heidar Helguson at the expense of Federico Macheda, a surprise change considering the news now transpiring that Helguson had in fact not picked up an injury during the opening period.
While nursing a long-term groin complaint, he coped adequately with the strength of Terry and Luiz at the back but evidently was not able to compete effectively at the start of the second half with Macheda charged with leading the line.
Rangers appeared a tad more positive with Smith seeing an effort from distance blocked by his Chelsea counterpart, but play soon switched to the other end with Young having to do likewise to thwart Sturridge.
Fitz Hall received a caution for deliberate handball while being grounded, with Torres seemingly teflon throughout – nothing seemed to stick despite a succession of cynical challenges as Rangers attempted to break.
Kenny then saved an effort from Mata before Strurridge went close with a drive cutting inside from the right. The young forward rifled a left-footed effort wide to the stopper’s right and into the upper tier of the School End.
The game belonged to the visiting side, with QPR unable to construct a concerted period of possession – gifting the ball to their Champions League opponents on numerous occasions to thwart their chances of a counter-attack.
This was in part down to the notable omission of Helguson, with Macheda evidently struggling to fill the void vacated by the influential Icelander. The enigmatic Luiz then tried his luck from distance with a powerful low drive away past the left-hand post.
Rangers then fashioned an opportunity from very little, Wright-Phillips turned Ashley Cole in knots before firing a hopeful drive across goal, forcing Cech to parry and narrowly evading the onrushing Mackie.
Then came the fixture’s decisive moment – a delivery from Mata down the left saw Sturridge bounce off Hill and turn to the referee in protest. With many angry at the suggestion of an appeal, referee Dean pointed to the spot.
Hill was evidently bemused and perplexed given what was a very harsh decision indeed – and he had previous given some laughable theatrics in the opening period – nevertheless Dean was unmoved in his decision to grant a spot kick that not even the visiting fans appealed for.
Juan Mata never looked like missing, placing powerfully low to the right, beyond Kenny and into the back of the net. Deserved on the balance of play, but a sickening blow for the hosts with the official evidently suckered into a disappointing decision.
GOAL: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0-1 CHELSEA
The nature of the goal will have left a bitter taste, but one cannot argue that on the balance of play, Chelsea were looking the superior side. Despite flashes of inspiration, Rangers were sliding out of the FA Cup without so much as a whimper.
There was little in riposte from the hosts who could not construct a positive period of play, another effort from Sturridge was blocked by Smith, before Smith himself saw an effort blocked by Ramires.
The Brazilian stayed down for a period of time, sustaining ligament damage in a rather innocuous fall following the shot. He was withdrawn with Spaniard Oriel Romeu coming on in his stead.
Rangers threw on Rob Hulse for the useful Ákos Buzsáky in a bid to get a better aerial presence in attack – Macheda was looking truly out of his depth and overawed by an ominous Chelsea back-line.
It in truth sparked QPR into life – Hulse looked invigorated from the player that barely slumbered his way through the Championship campaign. Chasing down players and buying a good free kick from Luiz – sadly once again Rangers were unable to capitalise on a dead ball situation.
Substitute Romeu was booked when he went in wildly on the aforementioned Hulse, and in truth had the theatrics of Strurridge come into play then he may well have seen more than just a caution for a rash challenge.
Michael Essien continued his comeback from injury, coming on as a substitute for Mata but it was Rangers that nearly made it a blockbuster finish – coming inches away from what would have been a rather unjustified replay.
A rare neat exchange of passing from the hosts saw Wright-Phillips feed Young down the right before the full back unleashed an excellently-placed strike that appeared destined for the corner – only for Cech to produce a tremendous one-handed stop.
It was the final attempt of a rather drab encounter as despite the media spice and hype, the home side failed to truly test the resolve of what was a demotivated Chelsea camp – disappointment as Rangers bowed out of the FA Cup.
FULL TIME: QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0-1 CHELSEA
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Paddy Kenny, Clint Hill, Fitz Hall, Jamie Mackie, Ákos Buzsáky (Rob Hulse 79), Joey Barton, Luke Young, Tommy Smith, Heidar Helguson (Federico Macheda 46), Shaun Wright-Phillips, Anton Ferdinand.
Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Ramires (Oriel Romeu 79), Fernando Torres, Juan Mata (Michael Essien 90), Florent Malouda, Raul Meireles, Daniel Sturridge, John Terry.