Frank Lampard can feel the surge of momentum and his first season in charge of Chelsea is set up for glory. Never mind the priority of delivering a Champions League finish, which looks on after the impressive Premier League victory against Manchester City on Thursday, his team are now into the last four of the FA Cup.
Lampard won the lot as a Chelsea player, including four FA Cups, and how he would love to claim his first piece of silverware as a manager in the final of this competition at Wembley in August.
Ross Barkley fired the possibility with the only goal of a keenly contested tie after being sent on as a half‑time substitute. Chelsea had been poor in the first period, lethargic and off the pace, and Lampard felt compelled to introduce not only Barkley but César Azpilicueta and Mateo Kovacic.
The improvement was marked and, although Lampard could pick holes in the collective performance, he and his team found a way to win and keep the feelgood factor at the club bubbling. Off the field they have invested £89m on Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech for next season, and on it they are delivering.
Barkley’s finish was a beauty, converted low and first-time into the bottom corner after a perfectly timed run to meet a Willian cross and it added up to frustration for Brendan Rodgers and Leicester.
The hosts were slick in the first half, their pressing urgent, their tempo high, but after fading in the second period they know that it is three games without a win since the restart. As Rodgers stressed, this was better than the performances in the league draws with Watford and Brighton but a clinical edge in front of goal has deserted them and, more broadly, it is now just two wins from the last 10 matches.
Leicester remain in a fine position to return a Champions League finish, which would be an incredible achievement, but they can feel the thunder of the chasing pack, with not only Chelsea but Wolves and Manchester United having closed up on them. The pressure is palpable.
It could have been a different story had Leicester taken their first-half chances. Ben Chilwell’s free-kick delivery was a threat and he picked out the commanding Wilfried Ndidi in the 13th minute only for the midfielder to head straight at Willy Caballero. Ndidi had found space but not as much as Jonny Evans would do on 29 minutes. The centre-half got the run on Antonio Rüdiger to meet Chilwell’s ball, only to glance off target. In between times, Youri Tielemans stepped up to intercept a Billy Gilmour pass and shoot low from the edge of the area. Caballero made a smart save.
Lampard made six changes to the lineup that had beaten City while Rodgers made four from the Brighton game, with James Maddison unavailable because of a hip injury; he is doubtful for the trip to Everton on Wednesday. Chelsea were as flat as they have been all season in the first half, according to Lampard, but they did create the clearest chance and only Kasper Schmeichel’s reflexes kept out Christian Pulisic.
All it took was a penetrative pass from Mason Mount in the 31st minute and a slicing run from Pulisic inside the area. The American darted from left to right to blow open a seam of space and his rising drive was struck firmly. Schmeichel was equal to it.
Lampard had harsh words for his players at half-time and, emboldened by the temporary rule that allows for five substitutions during the 90 minutes, he rang the changes, taking off three young players in Reece James, Mount and Gilmour, and introducing greater experience. In truth, he could have replaced any of the starting XI. Chelsea were immediately more assertive, occupying higher starting positions and taking the game to Leicester. Now, the aggression belonged to them.
Tammy Abraham had the ball in the net only to be correctly pulled back for offside, then Barkley made the difference, stealing in behind Ndidi to sweep home Willian’s centre before Evans could get across. It was Barkley’s fourth goal of the season – all of them have come in the domestic cups – and, from a Leicester perspective, it was a brutal punishment for a lapse in concentration.
Rodgers’ team never looked like finding the equaliser to force extra time, although Caglar Soyuncu headed at Azpilicueta and wide towards the end after Caballero had flapped at a cross, and Ndidi was off target with a first-time sidefoot. Barkley might have added a second only to choose the wrong option after a four-on-two break in the 89th minute and then see Schmeichel save from him when he got the ball back. For Barkley, and Chelsea, one was enough.