No matter the opponent, no matter the competition, Chelsea’s players are managing to maintain their on-field focus amid a troubling period for the club.
It’s now six straight wins since Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich announced he’d be selling the London club, with Chelsea swatting aside second-tier Middlesbrough in a 2-0 win to reach the FA Cup semifinals on Saturday.
Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech scored the first-half goals that were celebrated by a smaller-than-normal pocket of visiting fans inside the Riverside Stadium. In light of the economic sanctions placed on Abramovich by the British government for his close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin following the invasion of Ukraine, Chelsea was only able to take around 700 supporters for the match in the northeast.
The disparity in backing didn’t make a difference, with Middlesbrough’s ambitions of following up victories over Premier League teams Manchester United and Tottenham in the earlier rounds quickly snuffed out.
And so concluded another turbulent week for Chelsea, which advanced in the Champions League on Wednesday — setting up a quarterfinal meeting with Real Madrid — before a deadline passed Friday for bids to buy the club from Abramovich and end his 19-year ownership.
Given the doubts over their futures, Chelsea’s players are showing remarkable professionalism and application.
No little skill, too, with both of the goals being length-of-the-field moves that started with Chelsea’s ball-playing defenders beating Middlesbrough’s high press.
The first ended with Ziyech setting free Mason Mount, whose low cross from the right was tapped home by Lukaku in the 15th minute.
Ziyech made it 2-0 in the 31st by cutting in from the right, aided by Cesar Azpilicueta’s decoy run taking away a defender, and drilling a low, angled shot into the far corner from outside the area.
The remaining quarterfinal matches take place on Sunday, with two being all-Premier League contests: Southampton vs. Manchester City and Crystal Palace vs. Everton. Wrapping up the last eight, quadruple-chasing Liverpool visits second-tier Nottingham Forest, which has already eliminated Arsenal and defending champion Leicester.
It’s looking more and more likely that Arsenal will be back in the Champions League next season.
A 1-0 win at Aston Villa saw Arsenal move four points clear of fifth-place Manchester United in the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four. Arsenal has a game in hand, too.
Bukayo Saka scored the 30th-minute winner — for his ninth league goal this season — by latching onto a ball that was weakly cleared by the Villa defense and lashing a low, first-time shot past unsighted goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from the edge of the area.
Arsenal was in control for most of the lunchtime game at Villa Park, despite the short turnaround from its loss to Liverpool on Wednesday night — a schedule that had annoyed manager Mikel Arteta.
“I think the team showed today a lot of personality to come and play the way we played,” Arteta said. “We dominated the game.”
This season is the first in a quarter of a century that Arsenal has not been involved in European competition.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80