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Feb 17, 2013

Respite for Rafa as Blues progress

It may have been a throwaway line at the end but, in uttering it, Rafa Benitez inadvertently revealed more than anything he had said in the preceding press conference.

"Let me enjoy today and then we will think about it," the Chelsea boss declared after watching his side reach the FA Cup fifth round.

"It", of course, could have been any one of the number of issues or controversies that Benitez was asked about it following the Blues' ultimately impressive 4-0 win over Brentford.

To begin, there was Roman Abramovich's presence at the game and what that meant for Benitez's own future. Once again, there was Frank Lampard's contract situation. Most contentiously, there were the morning reports of a bust-up with John Terry and, most recently, there was David Luiz's ugly challenge on Jake Reeves.

Benitez had batted away questions on all of them in typically flat fashion, other than when he emphatically denied the Terry reports, describing them as "totally rubbish". As such, it was somewhat surprising that the most understandable response of all - about just enjoying a fine win - came after the most innocuous question of all, regarding whether on-loan Josh McEachran will be allowed play for Middlesbrough in the fifth round against his parent club. Indeed, the very fact that Chelsea's passage to the next stage was almost overlooked sums up the club at present: there is always another issue set to dominate.

But that's also always going to be the case when qualification is as routine as this. By the end, there were no alarms, no surprises for Chelsea. Consequently, though, it also means that the real value in performances like this - beyond actually reaching the next round and remaining on course to retain the FA Cup and win a trophy this season - is how such a win brings the team on and enhances cohesion and confidence.

Certainly, Chelsea were playing with plenty of both by the final 20 minutes. It wasn't, however, always like that. In fact, at isolated - but relatively frequent - occasions throughout the first half, it genuinely seemed like an upset might be on. The game certainly had some of the elements of one, with Brentford manager Uwe Rosler later saying: "We gave it all, we forced them to also give it all. The scoreline doesn't reflect the game."

The League One side brought the focus and intensity of the first match into this replay at Stamford Bridge and, although the home side were actually playing at impressive pelt themselves, it meant there was almost no freedom around Brentford's box.

"We were very good denying [Juan] Mata this space to control," Rosler said later. "At periods, Chelsea was running out of ideas."

When the hosts came up with some, though, it was luck that seemed to desert them. An illustrative moment came on 25 minutes. The effervescent Victor Moses flicked on excellently for Mata, he touched the ball on for Oscar but the Brazilian's shot hit the wrong side of the post. Even minutes before that, when the box suddenly seemed to open for Oscar, another effort was deflected wide.

Worse, if not quite to the confident levels of the first game, Brentford did occasionally look threatening on the break. Most controversially, a free-kick was given rather than advantage played when they had the ball in the net, but Rosler admirably refused to make an issue of it later. Chelsea, meanwhile, refused to let any frustration get to them. Instead, in order to finally break a lower-league side, they resorted to that most elementary cup upset tactic: route one.

On 54 minutes, Petr Cech launched the ball forward, Demba Ba flicked on and Mata picked his spot. Rather appropriately, the excellence of the playmaker's finish lifted the level of the goal as a whole. Because, from then on, the rest of the team rose to Mata's level.

"We knew that scoring the first goal would be the difference," Benitez said.

"They would be more open, there would be more space. It was a question of time," Rosler concurred. "They were working very hard in the first half and keeping that intensity against a team like Chelsea would be very hard. At some stage, [playing like that], you get tired; first and foremost probably mentally. Again, they used one of those moments. The only thing is, after the first goal, we got too loose too early. They punished us." And how.

On 67 minutes, substitute Eden Hazard picked up a loose ball, used his lightning feet to create more space and fed Branislav Ivanovic to set up Oscar. The fact his inventive but still rather soft flick went in so easily illustrated how much the game had changed.

Three minutes later, Mata changed it further by lifting the ball through for Lampard to get even closer to the club scoring record. And, nine minutes from the end, Terry followed his long-time team-mate by completing the scoring and a good day for Chelsea all-round. Indeed, there was a curious innocence to Terry's celebration. In short, he seemed to greatly enjoy it.

Chelsea are back in the fifth round and, after a few recent ructions, back on track with three wins in a row in all competitions. For Benitez, that's certainly much more enjoyable than questions about the future.

Be part of the Budweiser 2012-13 FA Cup fan film. Share your photos on Twitter: #tothedream

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