That was an interesting game, wasn't it? Chelsea survived injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Petr Cech, a red card issued to Alex in the 47th minute and their penalty shootout curse to advance past neighbours Fulham and reach the fourth round of the Carling Cup for the first time in two years thanks to Cottagers striker Bryan Ruiz contriving to hit the crossbar twice in one shot on the eleventh and decisive spot kick of the evening
Andre Villas-Boas had said that he was going to use the Carling Cup as an opportunity to introduce the younger members of the squad to first team action, and he didn't disappoint, deploying Oriol Romeu, Ryan Bertrand, Romelu Lukaku and Josh McEachran in what was obviously a second-choice Chelsea lineup. Only Cech, Sturridge and David Luiz could make a case for themselves as regular starters, and Villas-Boas might not agree with the latters's! Nevertheless, it was a decent side, and should have been able to deal with a Bobby Zamora-less Fulham without too many problems.
Chelsea started brightly, with Bertrand in particular involved down the left flank. The young fullback combined with Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou repeatedly over the first few minutes of the game, but with the result inevitably being a cross swung in for Lukaku to contest, and the young Belgian having major issues in challenging for the ball in the air, the Blues had very little to show for their work.
Elsewhere, Paulo Ferreira was doing a good job linking up with Sturridge, who was more or less failing to reciprocate with anyone. Romeu and McEachran made a classy-looking tandem in the centre of midfield, and the central defensive pairing... well, they looked vulnerable to long balls over the top in the transition, with some questionable play in the attacking half by Bertrand and Romeu causing problems for the centre backs.
Chelsea had plenty of chances to take the lead in the first half, but the front line was unimpressive. Kalou completed about two passes in the entirety of the match, Sturridge blazed wide pretty much whenever he was in possession, and Lukaku looked far too tentative for someone of his physique and ability. There were flashes there, but nothing like a finished product.
Instead, the most incisive move came from McEachran, who surged into the area, juggling the ball past two defenders and then sent in a left footed shot that eased past Mark Schwarzer. It wasn't a particularly powerful shot, however, and Sturridge gave it a nudge into the net to make sure nobody could clear the ball. Unfortunately, Sturridge was offside, and said goal was ruled out. It's not entirely clear whether the attendant defender would have been able to clear the ball off the line before it went in, so we should probably give Sturridge the benefit of the doubt and not blame him for ruining a perfectly good goal, especially as he hurt himself in the process and had to depart for Frank Lampard shortly thereafter.
Sturridge wasn't the only casualty of a first half which saw the likes of Bryan Ruiz and Karim Frei making dangerous runs into the penalty area. Orlando Sa joined the club right on the brink of halftime, and he managed to clatter Cech in the process, dealing the goalkeeper a rather nasty (if accidental) blow to the head. Chelsea fans are kind of touchy about that sort of thing, and Cech didn't look happy either. He struggled on to the interval but did not re-enter the pitch in the second period.
Instead, noted mishap enthusiast Ross Turnbull took the field to be immediately greeted by the sort of calamity that would make you think David Luiz was involved. Ruiz released Frei in the area and a Brazilian centre half launched into a reckless sliding tackle, bringing the teenager down and earning himself a red card and Fulham a penalty. That's straight from Sideshow Jesus' playbook - only it was Alex who was the man to go. The red card was possibly harsh, but it was certainly a foul and Chelsea can have no complaints about giving up the spot kick.
As it turns out, they didn't need to worry about it. Pajtim Kasami stepped up (I have no idea why, considering that there were certainly more experienced options available to Martin Jol's team) and cracked his shot against the top of Turnbull's crossbar. The match remained 0-0, and the only change was that Chelsea had to play with ten men. That required a switch, and McEachran was the one sacrificed in favour of John Terry, although he didn't take the armband off Lampard.
The way Chelsea reacted to going down to ten was hugely impressive, because despite the numerical disadvantage they were by far the better side in the second half. Lukaku emerged from his shell to become something of a force of nature. However, his runs tended to take him down the flanks rather than up the middle, and Kalou was completely incapable of adding an attacking presence in the centre, because all he did all half was lose the ball. I don't have the stats on this, because it's the Carling Cup, but I'm reasonably confident that I can count the number of passes the Ivorian successfully completed in the second half on one finger. It was awful.
Schwarzer also decided to start making things difficult, pulling off several brilliant saves to deny a bevy of Chelsea players. It was the hosts who looked more likely to stop the game going to extra time, but Turnbull too was called into action on a few occasions, rising to the challenge each time. He barely had a Turnbull moment all game, which was a rare shock.
Anyway, obviously neither team could force the issue, and we went to extra time. This was notable only for how tired everyone but David Luiz and Oriol Romeu was. Lukaku looked dead on his feet and succumbed to cramp in the early stages, and a couple of Fulham players also collapse on the pitch mid-play. It became quickly obvious that unless David Luiz put on his superhero hat we'd be going to penalties, and he was just being a regular hero this evening as he was busy schooling substitute Bobby Zamora - penalties it was.
Lampard was the first to take, but his penalty was saved by Schwarzer. Zamora replied with a well-taken goal, and then David Luiz and Steve Sidwell(!) exchanged beautifully-taken spot kicks into the bottom right corner. Chelsea's next spot kick taker was John Terry, who didn't fall over (too late, John) and stuck the ball in the back of the net. Moussa Dembele did not, sending a weak spot kick into Turnbull's midriff, and when Kalou and Malouda both converted brilliant penalties, it fell to Bryan Ruiz to keep his team in the cup.
In truth, his penalty was within half a micron of being one of the greatest ever taken. Nobody's sure whether the ball crossed the line (I don't think it did, but obviously, I'm biased). What I do know is that it's the first shot I've ever seen that's ever hit the crossbar twice, and that Fulham were immensely unfortunately to lose like that.
And that's the extent of my sympathy for the Cottagers, because goodness knows we've been unlucky in penalty shootouts over the past few billion years. Chelsea hadn't managed to win a meaningful shootout in more than a decade, and it was a huge relief to be able to put those demons behind us here.
So, that's passage to the fourth round, then. It wasn't a game full of quality, but it was really interesting, especially the way Chelsea played while down a man. We also got to see the kids, so hey, that's nice. Since the injuries turn out to be not so bad, the only real downside to the match was that David Luiz has probably ruled himself out of appearing against Swansea this weekend. Other than that, all is well.