Chelsea, reeling from a mugging in Wales and a self-inflicted setback against the Society of Unbearable Historians, travelled to Leicester City in the hopes of advancing to the fourth round of whatever we’re calling the League Cup these days. Several self-inflicted setbacks later that hope looked vaguely ludicrous. Yet here we are, basking in the joy of a 4-2 triumph. Football’s a silly sport sometimes, and that seems to go double when we’re playing.
Neither Claudio Ranieri nor Antonio Conte went with their first-choice lineups for this meeting. Ruben Loftus-Cheek started behind Michy Batshuayi, with Pedro and Victor Moses flanking him and a midfield pairing of Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic. Marcos Alonso made his Blues debut at left back, pushing Cesar Azpilicueta over to the right. The Foxes, meanwhile, rested both Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, the latter’s absence in particular a relief for Chelsea’s defenders.
Not that you’d have known it from the first half. Things started innocently enough, of course. A peach of a long pass from David Luiz saw Pedro skin Danny Simpson and round both of Ron-Robert Ziegler’s first names before tucking home, only to see his celebrations cut short by an extremely narrow offside call. Minutes later, Chelsea could and probably should have had a penalty when Marcin Wasilewski made the eccentric choice of catching a high ball on his arm for no reason. The referee, however, had temporarily suspended the rules of human anatomy, so no arm, no foul; we moved on.
The danger signs were there. The Blues were having trouble actually playing through midfield, with Fabregas and Matic (Loftus-Cheek nowhere in sight) utterly stymied by the hard pressing of Andy King and Danny Drinkwater. That forced them to spend too much time knocking the ball around the back line, where one loose touch could cause disaster.
That the first loose touch was taken by Gary Cahill, a little over a week following what transpired at Swansea and only days removed from his hospitality towards Liverpool, was certainly thematically appropriate; that the situation was salvaged by David Luiz while Cahill attempted to make up for his error by fouling everything within 10 yards was hardly reassurance enough to relax to watching supporters.
Further errors were forthcoming, but to the surprise of most it was actually the fullbacks and goalkeeper who combined for the opener. Alonso, under less than no pressure, gave the ball away on the left. Ahmed Musa failed to take advantage of Chelsea’s disorganisation, dumping in a frankly horrid cross that should have been dealt with easily.
It wasn’t -- instead of clearing or guiding the delivery to Asmir Begovic, Azpilicueta instead bounced it towards the far post. There lurked Shinji Okazaki, and so shocked was the poor goalkeeper that he appeared to forget how his hands worked, leaving him entirely helpless as the striker guided the ball gently over the line. Combined interventions by Cahill and Azpilicueta failed to convince, and the goal was given.
One Batshuayi header (entirely free, entirely wide) later and Chelsea were at it again. Another Leicester cross, this time from the right and way overhit, seemed to spell the end of an attack. Pedro scuttled onto the ball, twisting to clear the ball downfield. The problem was that it didn’t get very far. Pedro had managed to find the piece of turf occupied by Andy King, and with the rest of the defence wrong-footed by the mistake, it was simplicity itself for the midfielder to pick out Okazaki’s run towards the near post. Begovic didn’t bother using his arms on this goal, either.
And so the Blues found themselves 2-0 down, away from home, against the reigning Premier League champions. That’s hardly an optimal situation, and to make matters worse they looked thoroughly incapable of doing anything about it. N’Golo Kante might have jumped ship in the summer, but King and Drinklager looked more than capable of blocking things off in the centre.
Loftus-Cheek in particular was struggling, coming short on long balls aimed at the channels yet staying away from anything that looked like smart buildup play. It was a disappointing game from the youngster, who showed flashes of being useful but failed to place those isolated moments into anything approaching a coherent game. Instead, Chelsea were reliant on Moses, facing off against 19-year-old Benjamin Chilwell to get anything going. There at least was a clear bright spark, with the Blues’ forgotten man routinely putting his hapless opponent on the back foot, even if everyone around him contrived to waste the openings he was forcing.
Just when it seemed as though we were doomed into staring at a 2-0 halftime deficit, Leicester imploded, throwing the Blues the lifeline they needed to get back into the tie. Apparently Chelsea Defending Syndrome is aerially contagious. If not I’m having a hard time explaining what persuaded Wes Morgan let Cahill, a man sublimely dangerous at both ends of the pitch, roam free on a corner kick. But Cahill wasn’t going to spurn the chance, guiding a smart header beyond Ziegler and over the line, with David Luiz following it in just to make sure.
2-1 at the interval looked a lot better than 2-0, and 2-2 49 minutes in was better still. Chelsea grabbed their equaliser following a botched Foxes corner, and although it looked like the smart counterattack would end when Morgan blocked Loftus-Cheek’s low shot. But the wayward clearance demon suddenly decided we’d had punishment enough and gave us a nice present for our troubles, sending Wasilewski’s floated header straight to the right boot of Azpilicueta, 20 yards from goal.
In a normal game, this would have meant that the ball was recycled, played safe, worked, in other words, such that someone other than Cesar Azpilicueta might take a shot. But this, reader, was no normal game, and Azpilicueta succumbed to the primal urge that overcomes any fullback that’s ever found themselves in shooting position: he hit the ball as hard as possible as soon as possible.
Replay that sequence 100 times and the ball ends up decapitating some poor spectator as often as not. It might hit the post a few times, whistling just over for a handful of others. What actually happened was that Azpilicueta’s volley whistled past the baffled Drinkjackandcokeplease, beyond a despairing dive from Ziegler and made vigourous love to the top corner. 2-2. Chelsea right back in it.
The match to this point had been a strange sequence of absentminded passes punctuated explosively by calamitous defending. Now it changed into a full-throttle, drunken joyride (don’t do this, kids) of a game. Diego Costa’s appearance, with Loftus-Cheek making way, saw Chelsea transformed from hopeful to menacing.
Within seconds of his introduction a pocket of space opened up for Batshuayi to have a pop at goal, his fine long-range effort being matched by an even better save from Ziegler. Costa himself was involved shortly thereafter. Set free by a wonderful pass from David Luiz, the striker dodged Simpson and Wasilewski to run free on goal before missing the far post by mere inches.
Chelsea weren’t having it all their own way, however, and as so often happens David Luiz’s contributions came with a cost. The price this time was the Brazilian stepping under a high ball and letting Musa scamper right past him, and it took a fine near-post save from Begovic to prevent Leicester going back in front.
Ranieri reacted to Costa’s substitution by throwing Ulloa and Vardy into the fray, and the latter’s first touch nearly resulted in a Foxes goal when he touched a corner straight to King at the far post. At point-blank range, all King had to do was steer a relatively easy header home. Instead he plopped it right over the bar, and Chelsea were off the hook.
At the other end of the pitch, Costa was making a nuisance of himself. Another raking pass from David Luiz put him in position to wriggle through the Leicester line, Zeigler saving low, and Azpilicueta got in on the through-ball action late only to watch as Costa mis-hit a shot into the side netting. It wasn’t just his shooting that was giving the hosts fits, however. Costa never found the scoresheet, but he was certainly involved in the game’s most telling moment, handing the Blues a man advantage just before the beginning of extra time.
Wasilewski had been wandering an erratic path from kickoff, barely avoiding a penalty and taking a yellow card for a foul on Loftus-Cheek. His commitment was clear, but also easily exploitable, and it came as no surprise when he went right over the edge with a minute left to play. Most outlets will call his challenge on Costa ‘rash’ or ‘clumsy’. What it was was a (relatively gentle and thoroughly inept) blow to the face, a dismissal in its own right. With the centre back already on a booking, referee Bobby Madley had little choice but to send him for an early bath.
It wasn’t just going up against 10 men that would have given the Blues a boost heading into extra time. Eden Hazard was added to the mix, coming on for Pedro, but there was also a far more meaningful substitution in the form of Nathaniel Chalobah’s Chelsea debut. To say it had been a long time coming is an understatement — the 21-year-old was first named to the bench six years ago. But it wasn’t just a feel good moment. Chalobah’s introduction meant that Fabregas could push up the pitch, both reinforcing the midfield core (no more threat from Drinkfunitillhavethatvodkaneat) and putting Fabregas himself in a position to do as much damage as possible.
How much damage he managed to inflict in extra time probably surpassed Conte’s wildest dreams. Within four minutes Fabregas had his brace and Leicester were down for the count. The first was a thing of beauty. Hazard and Costa, who sometimes seem almost telepathic in their combination play, were working space on the left, and Fabregas, seeing that Hazard was about to be sprung in the centre, tore away from Drinkliquidlsd, met the Belgian’s sweet backheel with a perfect touch and then spanked a left-footed shot into the top corner from 16 yards. Not happy with making it 3-2, he then thundered home a similarly emphatic shot (albeit from closer range) after Ziegler’s half-hearted punch.
Up two goals against 10 men with half an hour to play thanks to the onslaught of Magic Hattery, Chelsea wisely opted to slow the match down and conserve their strength for Arsenal this weekend. Leicester seemed to concur, allowing Fabregas’s brace to stand as the frenetic climax to a rather drunken affair, and leaving the rest of extra time to nurse their collective hangover.
Danny Drinkthesweettearsofleicestersupporters seemed particularly disinterested. Shame.