Yet, while Wimbledon are always capable of causing shocks, not least of all when they are down - they lost in the Premiership at the weekend - this result was still achieved against all odds given Chelsea's recent record. Gianluca Vialli's men had beaten Arsenal 5-0 in the previous round and were enjoying a 19-game unbeaten run in all competitions since their defeat at Coventry on the first day of the season. Wimbledon had even greater cause to go for victory in a competition that their manager, Joe Kinnear, feels they can win, having lost 3-0 at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago.
And Kinnear summed up his feelings afterwards when he said: "Chelsea are a magnificent side. They've beaten us more often than not since I've been here so it was nice to get one over them, although I tried to keep the recent defeat out of everyone's minds."
The secret to Wimbledon's finest 90 minutes this season lay in a simple tactical switch at the beginning of the game. Kinnear saw Chelsea line up with five men against his four in midfield, so he moved Neal Ardley to match them man-for-man in the middle. After that Wimbledon had the upper hand as Chelsea player-manager Vialli had picked himself to play a lone role in attack, but Wimbledon's midfield starved him of any workable amount of possession.
And this victory, which puts Wimbledon within one game of the Wembley final in March next year, even saw Kinnear think of winning the competition and going into Europe, which he felt "would be a fairytale story for the club".
Wimbledon reaped the benefits of Kinnear's astute tactical thinking after only 20 minutes and Vialli admitted later: "I made a tactical mistake and the defeat was my fault. But we created some more chances in the second half. We now have to see how we cope with defeat and it might be useful for everybody."
The opening exchanges had favoured Chelsea, despite only having one striker but Earle changed the whole balance of the game. As players jostled for space in the penalty area, the Wimbledon captain sneaked in front of his marker and met Ardley's inswinging free-kick from only six yards out and nodded it low past Dmitri Kharine's left hand.
Wimbledon could have doubled their lead two minutes later when Carl Leaburn poun-ced on a mistake by Leboeuf to put him clear on goal with only Kharine to beat. However, Leboeuf made up just enough ground as Leaburn ran into the penalty area and put the Wimbledon striker off his shot as he sent an 18-yard effort curling past the post.
Leboeuf was at fault again for what turned out to be a poor night for the World Cup winner, who was without his regular partner in the centre of defence, Marcel Desailly, as Vialli made several changes from his side which drew at the weekend.
With only 16 minutes left of a second half that had seen Vialli bring on Tore Andre Flo to lend greater urgency to the attack, Chelsea had twice come close to equalising through Gustavo Poyet, when Leboeuf needlessly brought down Gayle on the edge of the area.
There was little fuss from Chelsea and equally little fuss from Hughes, who hit his spot-kick high into the roof of the net.
That finally kick-started Chelsea into a spirited defence of their title and as if to prove to Vialli that he should have started the match with Flo, with four minutes left it was the Norwegian who beat a defender on the byline and crossed to Vialli, who tapped in the ball. Then, with the match in injury time, the substitute Albert Ferrer hit the side-netting from 20 yards, allowing Wimbledon fans to keep dreaming of Europe.
Wimbledon: (4-4-2) Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Earle, Ardley, Hughes, Euell; Gayle, Leaburn (Ekoku, 73), Substitutes not used: Kimble, Roberts, Heald (gk), Kennedy.
Chelsea (3-5-1-1): Kharine; Leboeuf, Duberry (Ferrer, 78), Lambourde; Petrescu, Babayaro, Poyet, Wise, Morris (Di Matteo, 70); Goldbaek (Flo, h-t); Vialli. Substitutes not used: Hitchcock (gk), Nicholls.
Referee: Graham Poll (Tring).
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