A battle of floundering teams — of varying degrees, to be sure — Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge in the Round of 16 of the Carabao Cup produced a mildly entertaining, low-key, and largely comfortable win for the home side. Other than any real sense of excitement, the win over manager-less Everton was everything Chelsea would’ve hoped for: a second win on the bounce after three in a row without one; minutes for youngsters and backups; no new injuries; several good performances; lots of good vibes; and of course a place in the League Cup quarterfinals for the first time in three seasons.
To keep the first-choice starting eleven fresh for upcoming matches against Bournemouth, Roma and Manchester United, Antonio Conte opted for heavy rotation, making nine changes from the weekend’s victory over Watford. Only captain Gary Cahill and fellow defender Antonio Rüdiger remained from that 4-2 triumph, with the former celebrating that fact with a backheel flick to the football world’s amazement.
Interim Everton manager (and full-time hopeful) David Unsworth also named a mostly changed side, lining up in a 4-3-3 and proceeding to play football just as uninspired as under the recently fired Ronald Koeman and just as labored as the grizzled figure of “center forward” Wayne Rooney and his full facial scruff.
With Everton defending in deep, compact lines, Chelsea set out to dominate possession, which we did, and try to break down the visitors, which we did not, at least not to the same extent. That was perhaps not surprising without Eden Hazard's dribbling and Cesc Fàbregas' passing, though Danny Drinkwater — in his first ever Chelsea showing — and Ethan Ampadu — combining David Luiz's visual style and John Obi Mikel's playing style at the ripe old age of 17 — did a serviceable job just the same. Right wing-back Davide Zappacosta would inject some impetus down the right flank with barnstorming runs (and several surprising skill moves), but his sense of purpose was not matched by others in the Chelsea attacks.
If Chelsea were lacking punch, Everton seemed as if they were ready to go home already. Their passes from midfield were easily cut by the duo of Ampadu and Drinkwater, and Chelsea's defence — the starting lineup’s most experienced and cohesive unit with Christensen playing between Cahill and Rüdiger and the veteran Willy Caballero between the sticks — marshaled anything else that needed to be marshaling without much trouble at all.
Nothing that happened in the first 25 minutes indicated that the match would finish in any scoreline other than a 0-0 draw and a penalty kick shootout. That is until Kenedy, tasked with the job of a left wing-back once again, won a corner and Chelsea made it count.
Neither Willian, who took the short corner, nor Charly Musonda Jr, who provided the assist, had been able to do much up to that point. But the latter’s cross was picture perfect and Antonio Rüdiger’s finish even picture perfect-er, leaving Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with no chance. It was Rüdiger’s first goal for Chelsea and just the fifth of his top flight career.
Goals often change games. This goal changed nothing. Everton may have tried to open up, push their lines forward and exert some influence on the game, but all they managed was a few balls straight into the feet of Chelsea players as the Blues cruised into half-time, all cozy and comfortable.
Unlike the goal, the half-time break changed the game without either manager making any changes to their teams. Chelsea were happy to sit back more, giving Everton space in midfield, and, more crucially, down the flanks for Leighton Baines and Jonjoe Kenny to attack. As the crosses rained in, backup goalkeeper Caballero’s lack of aerial dominance a la Courtois became fully exposed; fortunately the former Manchester City man was quite sharp with his interventions after his screw-ups — none of which would have been necessary if the defending had been more cohesive in the first place.
Around the hour mark, Conte decided that Danny Drinkwater’s race was run, upgrading the position with Cesc Fàbregas in search of the same control that Chelsea exerted in first-half. Unsworth countered with Dominic Calvert-Lewin for the almost invisible midfielder James McCarthy. Calvert-Lewin, who was the Toffees’ biggest threat in the league meeting between the two sides, brought speed, danger, and a yellow card for Rüdiger after a rather untidy tackle from the Chelsea defender. Calvert-Lewin also managed to do a fine job of not being invisible, which is not something that could be said for Cesc unfortunately.
Ten minutes later, Conte made another substitution, taking off Musonda, who did not manage to reproduce his form or success from his full debut against Nottingham Forest in the previous round. The veteran Pedro came on for the youngster Charly, while Unsworth responded by bringing on youngster Ademola Lookman for the veteran Aaron Lennon. Lookman tried to make an impact as quickly as he could, hitting the side-netting only four minutes later
In the end, it was Conte’s changes that paid greater dividends, with the Blues slowly re-exerting control and getting to work on the second goal of the night. Batshuayi almost managed it after Fàbregas pressured Rooney into a terrible backpass, but the weekend’s two-goal hero couldn’t quite catch up to the ball and got a nasty collision with the post for his troubles instead. Fortunately, it looks like Michy escaped with nothing more than maybe a bruise or two.
That was to be one of the last plays for Batshuayi, who made way for Álvaro Morata, while Oumar Niasse replaced Wayne Rooney for the visitors.
Conte’s third attacking substitution (or like-for-like, at worst) of the night finally got Chelsea’s second goal, thanks to some excellent individual play from Willian as well as a great one-two with Fàbregas. Willian’s finish was as effortless as it was fantastic, banking in off the far post with unerring precision.
We were already well into stoppage time by now, but somehow Chelsea still found time to gift a consolation goal back to Everton just before the final whistle.
Rüdiger and Christensen combined for a rare bit of shoddy defending — Rüdi on the aerial challenge with Niasse, and Christensen on his botched clearance — to allow the ball to reach the penalty area with ease and fall to Calvert-Lewin to finish past the static Caballero, who also got a bonus knee to the head for his troubles.
But that was it and the goal proved academic at best as Chelsea confirmed our second victory over Everton already this season. The visitors are now winless in six, while Chelsea are back on track, refreshed, and ready to resume the fight for the top four ... and challenge for the League Cup semifinal against an opponent to be determined by Thursday’s draw. (The seven other teams who have made the quarterfinals include Manchesters City and United, Arsenal, Bournemouth, Bristol City, Leicester City, and, surprisingly, West Ham United, who came back from a two-goal half-time deficit against Spurs at Wembley. LOL!)
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