For the first 70 minutes, Chelsea looked to have secured their place in the League Cup semifinals with an efficient, straightforward 2-0 win over one of the best teams in the Championship. Goals by Eden Hazard and Filipe Luis had us firmly in control, and had Derby chasing and kicking shadows. It wasn't the smoothest football ever from the Blues, but it was certainly good enough for a cold, rainy Tuesday night somewhere in England.
Mourinho didn't disguise his intent to win this competition, and the even mix of first-teamers and backups was really no match for the hosts. Didier Drogba occupied both center halves, and the midfielders were feeding the big man at a steady rate. Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 -- Cesc Fabregas playing in front of a Matic-Mikel pivot, with Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle on either side, and Filipe Luis and Cesar Azpilicueta providing additional support -- had most of the ball, reducing Zouma, Terry, and Cech to mere bystanders. While Derby worked very hard to chase and close down, Chelsea's individual skill won out most of the time. On the flip-side, when Chelsea pressured, Derby tended to make mistakes. And sure enough, when Hazard and Drogba forced an error int he back line, Chelsea opened the scoring.
The wayward pass feel to Cesc Fabregas whose keen senses immediately sniffed out the opportunity for yet another assist. He looked up, gave Eden Hazard the ball, and the little magician did the rest: ghosting past three as he cut inside repeatedly before slotting past the goalkeeper. It was his third goal in four matches, and with 9 already on the season, he looks on pace to break 20 for the first time ever in his Chelsea career.
Further decent chances followed immediately courtesy of Drogba, Hazard, and Schurrle, but Chelsea's lead remained slim. Derby threatened to make us pay in the final five minutes of the first half when they lay siege on the Chelsea penalty area, helped out to a great extent by our inability to clear our lines. It was not a goal, but rather an injury that finally relieved the pressure.
Initial reports have claimed that Kurt Zouma was up and walking around and he in fact merely lost a tooth, but for a while there it looked very concerning as he was left in a crumpled heap and medics rushed onto the scene. Cech came out to punch Derby's corner, and while he did clear the ball, he also collided very heavily with the big defender. Entirely accidental, entirely scary. Zouma was replaced by Branislav Ivanovic.
The second half played out much the same as the first, with Chelsea in control and Derby trying their best, but largely failing. Filipe Luis doubled our advantage with a tremendous free kick, and for all intents and purposes, the match was over with 30 minutes to go. Drogba hobbled off soon after with what looked like an ankle injury; Remy replaced him and the game became more about lead preservation and injury-prevention than anything else.
League Cup magic can be fairly strong however, and it cares not for such reasonable decisions. With 20 minutes to go, some entirely lazy Chelsea defending allowed Craig Bryson enough space to sneak a shot by Petr Cech and in off the far post. Suddenly, the tie was alive and the stadium was rocking. Amid the ozone of the rain, people were smelling an upset.
But then Jonathan Moss made up for a missed decision earlier this year, when he didn't call Tim Howard's handball outside the area in Chelsea's 6-3 win at Everton, by sending off* Jake Buxton for a hug and hold on Loic Remy -- do two wrongs make a right? -- and Andre Schurrle made sure of Chelsea's win soon after, slotting home a rebound off of Remy's shot.
* This would've been even more perfect had he instead sent off the goalkeeper for what looked like another handball outside the box.
An efficient, fairly straightforward 3-1 win in the end, and Chelsea are back in the semifinals once again. In today's other game, Sheffield United upset Southampton (fifth straight loss for So'ton!), while tomorrow the two winners of Bournemouth vs. Liverpool and Spurs vs. Newcastle will round out the final four. Regardless of who those will be, Chelsea remain favorites for this trophy.