The match was at best muddled and at worst downright confused. Chelsea, who'd been subject to an FA Cup upset by a League One side last season, got a second bite of the cherry today. And while the bite wasn't particularly pretty, it was better than the last attempt. Scunthorpe came to Stamford Bridge with hopes of killing off a giant; they depart having lost 2-0.
In times past we've seen games like this as a chance for the second stringers to merrily romp through lower-league opposition. But defeat against Bradford combined with our perilous position in the Premier League meant that the FA Cup is something to be taken seriously again, and Guus Hiddink set his lineup accordingly. The youngsters would get their chance, but the onus would fall on the senior players to ensure that the match was more or less won by the time they did.
Things started brightly. Scunthorpe were obviously up for the match, and they tried their best to come at the Blues from the off. Their best efforts, however, were easily parried by Branislav Ivanovic at right back, and Chelsea were able to apply plenty of pressure of their own. That pressure told in the 14th minute. Ivanovic, Ramires and Willian combined to work a pocket of space on the right flank, the former sent in a cutting cross which ended up in the back of Luke Daniels' net.
Just how it got there was a bit of an enigma. Diego Costa didn't do a great job attacking the ball -- he seemed to misread the delivery and was forced into a weirdly balletic jab at it -- and he was also in close company with Scunthorpe defender Jordan Clark, who looked like he might have gotten the touch to steer it home instead. The mystery was eventually cleared up through the magic of replay, and it turned out to (probably) be a brilliantly-executed improvised flick from Costa to make it four goals in four from the striker since Hiddink took charge.
The visitors were doing their best to stay in a low block and hit on the counterattack, but the Blues were replying by keeping Cesc Fabregas deep and delivering some frankly terrific long passes. On another day, one of them might have ended up with a goal -- Pedro could probably have done more with Fabregas's best effort of the day -- but the threat of having their whole team bypassed was enough to see Scunthorpe spread a little bit further out and allow Chelsea to attack through more typical channels.
One of those attacks should have made it 2-0 in the 22nd minute. Arch-enemies Costa and Oscar cut through the Scunthorpe back line with a neat dummy/reverse ball combination, but given a free shot Oscar failed to find the target, his effort drifting microns off the far post. By this point Asmir Begovic might have been on holiday, but as the match went on without any corresponding increase in Chelsea's lead, Scunthorpe looked increasingly hopeful of scoring.
In the first half, it seemed as though their best chance would come from a corner. They were certainly playing for a set-piece goal, packing the six-yard box and hoping to profit from the ensuing carnage. Gary Cahill nearly had his head taken off by their most vicious effort, a shot hit so hard it turned into a Chelsea counterattack, and there were other moments which, if not exactly nervy had the distinct possibility of becoming nervy.
Then Ruben Loftus-Cheek, one of those mythical academy players we've heard so much about, came on for Oscar at halftime. For a good 25 minutes, the results were completely unencouraging. Fabregas and Ramires constitutes a fairly fragile midfield, and the youngster, who was playing at #10, seemed disinterested in dropping back to help them out at all. I'm inclined to say that this was probably deliberate from the manager rather than a dereliction of duty from Loftus-Cheek*, but whatever it was the result was that the Blues were slowly overrun, and couldn't hold possession in the Scunthorpe half even when they won the ball.
*Especially since he did a pretty nice job pressing in the opposition third.
Things nearly came to a head when a charging Kevin van Veen was brought down by Ramires on the very edge of the Chelsea box. The visitors were screaming for a spot kick, and replays showed that said screams weren't without a fairly strong point. A penalty at 1-0 would have been extremely inconvenient for the Blues, and I think we can all consider ourselves lucky that it wasn't given.
Fortunately Loftus-Cheek's advanced positioning paid off a little later, when on a rare Chelsea attacking move he appeared, Frank Lampard-esque, to sweep a Cesar Azpilicueta cutback past Daniels to wrap up the game (I don't know where to put this, but Costa's superb run to open up the space shouldn't pass unremarked upon). It was the 19-year-old's first goal at senior level , and could not have come at a better time. From that point, everything was a little calmer, and despite a late flurry from the visitors it was patently obvious that they were going for a consolation goal rather than a replay.