If it was a reminder of the way things used to be it was also possible to see this triumph as the start of Chelsea marching towards a brighter future. The first major final of the post-Abramovich era beckons and, for owners as derided as Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, there must be something satisfying about finally being given tangible evidence that their bold youth project is making progress.
This was a total mismatch, Middlesbrough’s 1-0 lead from the first leg shattered during a torrid first half, Chelsea cutting them to shreds with four unanswered goals. Cole Palmer, who has 11 goals since joining from Manchester City in the summer, was unstoppable. Raheem Sterling ran Boro ragged. Ben Chilwell was exceptional on his first start since injuring a hamstring in September.
Mauricio Pochettino, the coach charged with making sense of the heavy spending under the new ownership, could delight in a performance mercifully light on the usual chaos. After 18 months of turbulence, it almost felt as if Chelsea were back. Making it to Wembley with a 6-2 win on aggregate is about as emphatic as it gets, even for a club that reached cup finals as a matter of course during Abramovich’s day.
Admittedly it is worth maintaining a sense of perspective. Chelsea have had a kind run, winnable home games setting them up for a semi-final against a team in the second tier, and tougher tests lie in wait. They host Aston Villa in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday and visit Liverpool in the league next week.
Equally this was a ninth home game without defeat for Chelsea, who relished putting things right after their insipid performance during the first leg. Skulking around his technical area, shaking his head whenever the tempo dipped, Pochettino only found positives. There was calm instead of immaturity, poise rather than imprecision, and Boro’s hopes of reaching the final for the first time since winning this competition in 2004 soon looked remote.
Chipping away at the romance was the reality of Boro’s status: 11th in the Championship and riddled with injuries. Isaiah Jones, who tormented Chelsea at the Riverside, was unavailable. Chelsea’s long injury list was irrelevant. Pochettino’s tactics overwhelmed Boro, preventing them from settling into a low block, his surprising decision to drop Conor Gallagher paying off. It was easier for Chelsea to stretch the play with Mykhailo Mudryk and Sterling on the wings, Palmer behind Armando Broja and Enzo Fernández pushing forward from midfield.
Chilwell was just as influential in his first start at left-back this season. It is strange that Pochettino often used him as a winger at the start of the campaign. Chilwell, so effective when he overlaps and makes runs from deep, was eager to prove he belongs in a back four.
Wearing the armband inspired him. He was sharp, snapping into challenges, almost giving Chelsea the lead when he headed wide after beating Tom Glover to a long ball. He was baffled to be penalised for a foul on Boro’s goalkeeper. It was a sign of Chelsea’s aggression.
Boro could not respond, the ploy of Jonny Howson dropping into a back five causing confusion and giving Fernández and Moisés Caicedo too much space in midfield. Chelsea’s grip tightened. After 14 minutes Chilwell won possession, danced into space and slid the ball to Sterling. The winger drew Glover and found Broja, who was about to tap into the empty net before Howson raced back and scored an own goal with a desperate attempt to dispossess the Chelsea striker.
Their advantage wiped out, Michael Carrick’s side tried to hit back, Morgan Rogers drawing a save from Djordje Petrovic. Yet the game was only going one way. Chelsea soon led on aggregate, Sterling’s flick allowing Axel Disasi to surge forward from right-back and present Fernández with a simple finish.
Overrun and outclassed, Boro cracked again. Disasi intercepted a poor pass from Matt Clarke and drilled in a low finish after clever play from Palmer and Sterling. It was four when Palmer, doing things at his pace, punished another defensive howler by placing a low shot beyond Glover.
Chelsea eased off after half-time. Pochettino seemed to take mercy on Lukas Engel, who had taken a battering at left-back, by switching Sterling to the opposite flank. If Engel was feeling relieved about not having to deal with Sterling, though, it must have been tempered by Noni Madueke running at him after coming on for Mudryk. Chelsea were always capable of raising their level.
So it proved when Gallagher came off the bench and teed up Palmer for a first-time finish, then when Madueke cut inside and curled home the sixth. Chelsea could look forward to facing Liverpool or Fulham at Wembley. A fine late strike from Rogers would not dampen the mood.