Chelsea progressed to the Fourth Round of the Carling Cup on Wednesday night following a 4-3 penalty shootout win over West London neighbours Fulham.
Martin Jol’s team failed to take advantage of a 49th minute red card for Blues defender Alex, and after Pajtim Kasami missed the resulting spot kick, Chelsea put in what manager Andre Villas-Boas described as a “super human performance” to stay on terms for over an hour despite being a man light.
The Portuguese’s selection included teenagers Josh McEachran, Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu, whilst there was also a full debut for 22 year-old left-back Ryan Bertrand and another start for Daniel Sturridge. They were joined by Paulo Ferreira and Salomon Kalou in making rare first team appearances, whilst experience was on hand in the form of captain Petr Cech, defenders Alex and David Luiz, and Florent Malouda in midfield.
Fulham too shuffled their deck, affording starts to youngsters Matthew Briggs and Kerim Frei from their academy, whilst new signings Kasami, Bryan Ruiz, Marcel Gecov and Orlando Sá were handed the chance to show what they have to offer in Jol’s 5-3-2 formation, with Briggs and Stephen Kelly providing the width from wing-back.
Chelsea made most of the early going but were unable to make their territorial advantage count. Sturridge and Malouda went close but not close enough, whilst Kalou’s glancing header was off target.
A rampant counter attack involving Cech, McEachran and Lukaku culminated in the big Belgian driving a right-footed effort on target, but Fulham captain Mark Schwarzer was equal to it.
The visitors were keen to exploit the high defensive line Chelsea have used so far this season, but on this night Cech was noticeably playing closer to his back four in a sweeper-type role and the Blues were thankful for that when the giant Czech custodian was alert to beat Orlando Sá to a long through ball.
Winger Frei was lively in bursts and showed the capacity to dribble past men at will, whilst Sá’s lively running kept Chelsea on their toes at the back as Fulham pressed their way back into the game.
Chelsea saw a goal disallowed when Sturridge was deemed offside as he converted McEachran’s goal-bound effort. The 18 year-old midfielder had neatly exchanged passes with Lukaku in the box and was set to score before Sturridge tried to make sure.
It would prove an unfortunate mistake as the forward suffered an injury in the process and was forced off, being replaced by Frank Lampard.
Cech would also make way through injury as he failed to return for the second half after colliding with Sá just before the half time whistle. Suffering dizziness after a blow to the head, he took a safety-first approach and allowed Ross Turnbull to deputise.
Both Sturridge and Cech are expected to be fine after post-match evaluations showed no sign of serious problems.
Chelsea started the second half well and Kalou will be disappointed that he was unable to finish from the right side of the penalty box, driving his shot into the near post side netting.
The game swung less than five minutes after the restart when Alex felled the whippet-like Frei in the box. Referee Chris Foy awarded the penalty and gave the Brazilian his marching orders, much to the big man’s dismay.
Swiss midfielder Kasami stepped up but saw his spot kick crash back off the crossbar, a chance well and truly spurned.
In an effort to shore up the back four Villas-Boas introduced John Terry in relief of Josh McEachran, opting for more experience rather than drop the impressive Oriol Romeu into a familiar position alongside David Luiz and shuffle the midfield around.
Romeu shone for large parts of his full debut, displaying tenacity and intelligence in the tackle and exhibiting all of the hallmarks of a typical defensive midfielder. His passing was tidy enough if rarely expansive but he played with confidence and leadership throughout.
Being forced into all three substitutions limited Villas-Boas’ options and meant that a planned runout for Didier Drogba was now impossible. It also meant that Lukaku would have to soldier on in a lone striker’s role and despite visibly labouring, the teenager gave it every ounce of energy he had remaining as Chelsea played on a man light.
For their long spells of advantage with the ball, Fulham rarely created anything to worry Turnbull and instead the Blues had the better chances to win the match inside 90 minutes. Malouda’s golden opening from twelve yards out was wasted as he scuffed an effort on his right foot, whilst David Luiz charged around like a man possessed determined to make something happen.
Turnbull was to be tested, and he passed with flying colours in the closing stages, making outstanding stops to first deny substitute Dembele and then Kasami in quick succession.
Bertrand drew Schwarzer into action with a fine effort after good play with Malouda and Luiz tried and failed again as the match went into extra time. There was little by way of notable action in the addtional period with both sides tiring but Romeu, Malouda, Zamora and Sidwell respectively all went as close as anyone else had on the evening.
And so to penalties, with supporters inside Stamford Bridge more than aware of the club’s appalling recent history in such situations. Their outlook hardly improved after Lampard’s opening gambit was parried by Schwarzer in front of a swarming Matthew Harding Lower tier.
Zamora confirmed Fulham’s early advantage, and it lasted through successful spot kicks from David Luiz, Steve Sidwell and John Terry, who was stepping up for the first time since missing in Moscow three years ago.
Turnbull guessed right to deny Dembele and restore parity, and after Kalou, Baird and Malouda converted, Ruiz’s effort hit the underside of the crossbar and did not cross the line to put Chelsea into the hat for Saturday’s draw.
Chelsea: Cech (c) (Turnbull 45), Ferreira, Alex, David Luiz, Bertrand, McEachran (Terry 51), Romeu, Malouda, Sturridge (Lampard 43), Lukaku, Kalou
Subs not Used: Bosingwa, Mikel, Mata, Drogba
Sent off: Alex 47
Booked: Lampard 120