Chelsea managed to earn some semblance of revenge for Sunday's loss to Manchester United with a pulsating 5-4 victory after extra time at Stamford Bridge. That the win came with the reward of a trip to Leeds United is essentially an afterthought -- coming back from 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 down against a team like United before winning in extra time is a result to be savoured no matter what the competition.
While the weekend's league defeat started with a spell of extraordinary United pressure, Chelsea began the match in firm control of the game. Sir Alex Ferguson deployed what was essentially a reserve side, making ten changes to his starting eleven from Sunday, and it showed. The hosts had most of the ball, and were asking basically all the questions.
United's answer to said questions appeared to be 'let Daniel Sturridge have the ball'. The young striker was making his first start of the season in place of the unfortunately suspended Fernando Torres, and while the enthusiasm was there, the execution didn't turn up until very late. The first real action of the game saw Victor Moses play a quite breathtaking diagonal pass to the 23-year-old, who found himself behind the defence and with only Anders Lindegaard to defeat. Or at least, he did until he fell over.
Another player who hasn't made much of an impact this season is Oriol Romeu, who's been broadly out of favour since a disastrous display against United in February. The midfielder got a start alongside John Obi Mikel and immediately (and unsurprisingly) struggled, the rust evident as he picked up a yellow card in the 12th minute for a foul on Alexander Buttner, a booking that would cause problems later on.
In the meantime, however, Chelsea were still comfortable, snuffling out United attacks without much of a problem and coming up with some quite nice plays of their own. Moses, who was on good form throughout save for issues when trying to apply a cutting edge, came reasonably close with a good run into the penalty area before he too went down in much the same fashion as Sturridge had earlier.
Thwarted by the pitch when they tried to make darting runs forward, the Blues instead resorted to clever flicks and tricks. And yes, there were a lot of them -- at one point Chelsea contrived to play three in a row -- and they paid off not at all. Teams can be guilty of being overly technical in possession, and that was an error that would bite the Blues hard in the 22nd minute.
There was absolutely no danger. Chelsea had defended well and won a goal kick. But there were plenty of red shirts stuck upfield, which made a short, central pass absolute suicide. For some reason, in a move reminiscent of his error against Liverpool last season, Petr Cech opted to ignore common sense and play the ball to the top of the box for Romeu.
The 20-year-old found himself under pressure from no fewer than three United attackers, and a piece of loose control saw him cough up possession to Anderson. The Brazilian immediately picked out Ryan Giggs, and with nobody in the area to stop him, he slotted past Cech to make it 1-0.
Cue deflation around Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had played well up to that point, and to concede in such stupid fashion was painful. Mikel responded by clattering Danny Welbeck, putting both pivot midfielders on yellow cards. Things weren't looking good -- the composure was gone and a series of refereeing decisions went against the Blues, leading to fear of getting another Mark Clattenburg-esque performance form the officials, but suddenly things turned around, all thanks to Moses.
The Nigerian had had the better of Buttner all day, and his surging run into the box was met by a spectacularly ill-advised challenge from the former Vitesse left back. With the ball already well clear, all Buttner could do was bring Moses crashing to the ground, and referee Lee Mason wasted no time at all in pointing to the spot. With Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard both out of the lineup, David Luiz took the penalty, his trademark run-up resulting in a shot blasted past Lindegaard, who was helpless to save it despite guessing the right way.
And then, twelve minutes later, the Blues went down again. David Luiz had had an excellent game up until the point where he decided to charge through the midfield with zero support, predictably coughing up the ball and sparking a rapid, vicious counterattack. Anderson fed the hitherto quiet Javier Hernandez, whose first touch took Gary Cahill completely out of the picture.
Once Chicharito is given room to shoot, he doesn't miss very often, and he didn't here, dispatching a spectacular finish past Cech to re-establish the United lead. The cameras panned to a rather glum-looking Roman Abramovich in his private box. Having seen Chelsea lose 3-2 on Sunday, the owner was forced to watch his team trudge off at halftime, once more down 2-1.
Roberto di Matteo switched things up in the second half, adding Ramires to the midfield and withdrawing Mikel. That had the effect of opening up the game, a slight worry since Sir Alex Ferguson had opted to strengthen his own midfield by introducing young prodigy Nick Powell.
The United substitute nearly made an immediate impact, letting fly with a long range shot that nearly caught Cech out with a vicious swerve, although happily said shot broke just past the goalkeeper's left-hand post. But Chelsea were dangerous as well, and when Nani and Welbeck combined to allow a quick break, Sturridge very nearly found his way through only to be denied by a last-ditch tackle from Rafael.
And Sturridge nearly came close once more seconds later when the United defence went to sleep from a corner. The visitors somehow contrived to leave the centre forward totally unmarked when Mason blew his whistle, and Juan Mata's delivery should have resulted in a goal. Instead of controlling and slotting into an empty net, however, Sturridge instead opted for the unorthodox technique of a flicked scorpion kick into the bottom corner. It went about as well as one might expect.
But there were other corners to be had, and other targets to be picked out. In the 52nd minute, Mata won a corner on the left side, and this time his cross was aimed at the robust figure of Cahill, who rose majestically over the United defence to power in a header which Rafael didn't manage to clear until it was a full yard inside the net. The Chelsea pressure had paid off, and it was all square once more.
Sensing that the Blues might be able to win the match in normal time, di Matteo made an aggressive switch, removing the (understandably) quiet Lucas Piazon in favour of Eden Hazard. Chelsea looked even more dangerous from the second the Belgian was introduced, and it looked as though they were about to enter a phase of dominance when disaster struck once more.
A United break looked to have broken down when Hernandez ran into trouble at the edge of Cech's box, but a lucky bounce allowed the Mexican striker to recycle possession. There was nothing lucky about what happened next: Nani played a brilliant one-two with Anderson, blew past David Luiz as though the centre back wasn't there, and capped his first significant involvement in the game with a brilliant chipped finish over Cech and in.
That was back to square one for Chelsea, who may well have given up after twice coming back only to leak more goals. Giving up, however, is apparently no longer an option, and the Blues went all out to get another equaliser. Chance after chance came and went -- free headers for Cesar Azpilcueta and Victor Moses were skimmed just over the crossbar before Moses fired a low shot straight at Lindegaard from a good position.
But the clearest-cut chance came when Mata went steaming into the penalty area and fired towards the net, only to see the ball rebound off Michael Keane's right forearm. It was another clear-cut penalty, only this time Mason failed to give it. It was an innocent mistake, of course, but the minds of Chelsea supporters worldwide flashed back to Sunday as they prepared to castigate poor officiating for the seemingly-probable loss.
While the fans were sulking, however, the Blues played on. Hazard won a dangerous kick after being laid out by the already-booked Scott Wootton, leaving Mata to take a free kick from the same spot that the midfielder had beaten David de Gea from on Sunday. This time, however, he opted to curl a shot over the wall, only to see it fizz high of the crossbar.
Still chances were being created; still Chelsea were wasting them. By this point, Oscar had been introduced for the disappointing Romeu, and his attacking contributions were immediately felt. The Brazilian youngster managed to open up space in the box for Sturridge to shoot, a golden opportunity for the Blues to draw level that was completely and utterly wasted when the England international fired a tame effort straight down Lindegaard's throat.
There were only three minutes of stoppage time announced, and things looked fairly dire at the Bridge. United were repeatedly able to seize possession and move the ball up the pitch, and Chelsea didn't manage to create much of anything. At 92 minutes and 30 seconds, the club's young Carling Cup run looked over.
And then it happened. The ball caroomed crazily around the United area, eventually falling to Ramires eight yards out. He had time to shoot, but as he wound up, Wootton essentially fell on top of him. There was no way that wasn't a penalty (and it probably should have been a second yellow card for the 21-year-old to boot), and Mason dutifully pointed to the spot.
With Hazard on the pitch, the services of David Luiz were not required, and the Belgian waited coolly for Lindegaard to make his move before rolling the ball straight down the middle to level the score with the last kick of regular time. In retrospect, we shouldn't have been too worried -- Chelsea had thoroughly outplayed their guests since Nani's goal and the equaliser was always coming. They were, apparently, just trying to be dramatic.
After that hammer blow to United's hopes, one would have expected the Blues to come on strong and kill off the game in extra time. That's exactly what they tried to do, coming out of the blocks very fast and seeing multiple chances open up for Sturridge. The seemingly hapless striker opted to shoot from a tight angle with his first attempted before thoroughly wasting good work from Hazard a few minutes later when it looked easier to score, but he was finally presented with the chance to be the hero in the 97th minute. Mercifully, he took it.
After the lapses in concentration that led to United goals one and two, it was the visitors' turn to gift away a goal. Hazard punted a hopeful long ball in the vague direction of Sturridge up top. The pass was, rather predictably, met by the head of Wootton, but instead of clearing it or doing anything that might possibly be construed as useful, the centre back merely knocked the ball into Sturridge's path, leaving him one on one with Lindegaard. In retrospect, it was somewhat fortunate that Wootton hadn't been sent off in the penalty incident.
At full speed and with possession firmly secured, it was simplicity in itself for Sturridge to round the helpless goalkeeper and deposit the ball into the back of the net. After being forced to come back no fewer than three times in ninety minutes, the Blues were finally ahead.
All of which made Manchester United rather cranky. Nani tried to pick a fight with Oscar after the Brazilian had the temerity to dispossess him near the corner flag, sparking an altercation which led to a booking for both players. But crankiness wasn't stopping Chelsea from continuing to press their guests deep within their own half. The next chance fell to Cahill, who won a free kick then nodded just wide from Oscar's delivery.
The Blues came rather closer from the next free kick. An aerial pass from Mata found Sturridge only for Keane to haul him down when he looked to be through on goal. It was another sending off offence -- a clear last man foul -- that went more or less unpunished, with Mason opting to show yellow rather than red, but David Luiz did his best to make up for it with a piledriver of a shot that crashed off the crossbar and away to safety with Lindegaard beaten.
Victor Moses then had a chance to kill United off once and for all when Sturridge played him in with a clever pass*. The winger raced clear of the defence only to see his low shot kept out by a flying stop from United's backup. It was yet another missed opportunity in a game full of them, and it was starting to feel as though Chelsea would regret their profligacy unless they put the game to bed.
*Yes, I know. Make your jokes, mean people.
Fortunately, they did just that in the 116th minute. With minimal time remaining, Hazard picked up the ball on the halfway line, and ran straight at the United defence. Ramires, Sturridge and Moses all accompanied him, their weaving runs causing panic-striken red shirts to flit back and forth an a doomed attempt to contain the counterattack.
But Hazard was having none of it. Dumping Ryan Tunnicliffe to the ground with a superb turn, he then threaded an absurd pass to Ramires, who found himself bearing down on Lindegaard's goal with nobody else in the immediate vicinity. Rather than shoot, the midfielder simply jinked his way around the goalkeeper before slotting home to give Chelsea an unassailable-looking 5-3 lead.
With four minutes to go, United were absolutely not going to get back into the match, but they managed to snatch a penalty on the edge of stoppage time to make things a little less comfortable. Azpilicueta, who'd played reasonably well all evening (especially against Nani) bowled over Chicharito in the box, allowing Ryan Giggs to step up and send Cech the wrong way for his second of the match.
5-4 was a scary scoreline, but fortunately Chelsea refused to cave in, instead opting to control the match and continue to attack all the way through the final whistle. The last action of the game was another surge forward capped by Hazard skimming the outside of Lindegaard's left post with a shot from just outside the box, a stylish end to an extraordinary match.
It wasn't really a good game, mind. Chelsea have now conceded seven goals against United at Stamford Bridge in three days, an embarrassing tally, and although they won there are issues that absolutely need to be resolved. We also had to field the triumvirate of Oscar, Mata and Hazard for far longer than anyone would have liked considering the tight schedule we'll be facing for the better part of a month.
That said, it was still a hugely impressive victory. The team showed great fight in coming down from a 2-0 deficit on Sunday only to be screwed out of at least a point by terrible refereeing. Here, mistakes were made, but thanks to some very hard work from the attacking players, Chelsea were able to overcome them. No matter how one values the League Cup, it's hard to sniff at a triple comeback followed by an extra time win against United.