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Recap: Carling Cub semifinal, first leg

Who says the Carling Cup is a third- or fourth-rate competition? Chelsea's semifinal first leg against Everton on Tuesday at the Bridge was a fairly good match. In fact, it was enthralling.

At the close, 10-man Chelsea secured a crucial advantage in the tie thanks to wee-man Shaun Wright Phillips, who towered over Joleon Lescott in the 92nd minute to give the Blues a 2-1 win. Phillips, who also opened the scoring with a brilliant curling effort in the 25th, actually looked like a proper football player Tuesday -- an amazing feat. swpcele_619565.jpg

The game appeared to have 3-0 to Chelsea written all over it until John "Obi-Wan" Mikel was sent off in the 55th minute for a studs-up lunge on Phil Neville. Mikel, the Eazy-E of this football ish, is known for dealing out robust challenges. This, however, was a harsh decision in retrospect. Still, the way officials have been showing straight red cards for tackles of similar style it's really no surprise.

After Mikel was sent to the African Cup of Nations a tad early, Everton assumed control of the match and quickly found an equalizer through Toffees smooth operator Yakubu. With third-string goalkeeper Hilario in goal, things were no doubt going to be hilarious. The comedy ensued in the 63rd when the Portugese dust-collector horribly misjudged a free kick, allowing the ball to come out to Yak, who wasted no time depositing a laser into the far post netting.

Everton continued to boss, and nearly took a surprising lead in the 69th minute when McFadden avoided a saucy tackle from Ricardo Carvalho at the edge of the area and sent a scathing shot across goal that grazed the far post. Thankfully, Chelsea showed the resilience it's been known for throughout the Abramovich era, responding with a fervid run of play that culminated with SWP's inspired leap to the heavens for the winner. (OK, so it was probably an own goal off Lescott, who cares?).

The only real qualm I had was not with the team's performance, but with CEO of beautiful football Avram Grant. Grant shunned the idea of bringing on talented youngster Ben Sahar, instead replacing striking Claudio Pizarro with fullback Paulo Ferreira in the 82nd. Wait, what? And this was after bringing on Steve Sidwell for Joe Cole in the 61st. Yes, the same Sidwell who has only one forward pass on his Chelsea resume. Where was Scott Sinclair by the way? Whatever. It somehow worked out, though I'd still like to see more invention -- free-spiritedness -- from Grant.

Also, what was with Florent Malouda seeing 83-plus minutes of action? He looked bright enough, but hasn't he been on the shelf for some two months? Questionable for me. On the positive, Michael Ballack continues to impress in the middle of the park. Ze German offers a superb combination of grit and creativity sorely lacking from our side -- sorry Frank.

The bigger picture sees us record our sixth win in seven games. More importantly, perhaps, is that most of this work has been done with an extremely undermanned squad. A home league fixture with Tottenham on Saturday is crucial, especially with Arsenal and Manchester United hosting Birmingham and Newcastle respectively. As for the Carling second leg, that arrives Jan. 23. A trip to Goodison Park never should be overlooked and, after tonight's showcase, I would gauge the match to be another peach.

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