Peacock 13, 47
Luton Town. .0
AN IMPARTIAL bystander would want a Manchester United v Chelsea FA Cup final. The romantic would have prompted Luton Town not to stand back and let Chelsea stroll all over them. But that was more or less what happened. Two goals from Gavin Peacock secured Chelsea's first Cup final place for 24 years.
If yesterday's semi-final was less than inspired, for Chelsea, achieving a place in the final when it was only Boxing Day that they were second from bottom of the Premiership was creditable. And if today Manchester United become their final opponents, then why should they be fearful? They have already beaten them twice this season in the League, and remain the only club to do so.
Earlier this season, somebody mentioned that this was the Chinese Year of the Dog. David Pleat said it could equally be the year of the underdog. But when he made that remark, there were more than the usual number of First Division clubs still surviving. He was not to know that Luton would become the last to dog their better pedigree chums.
Pleat keeps proving that he is a more accomplished manager than many who start with greater advantages. Simply by getting Luton past Newcastle United and West Ham and into the last four was extraordinary. After all, this is a club who sell to survive - not least to Chelsea themselves. But if the heart felt for the underdog, it empathised with Glenn Hoddle's Chelsea, a team at last putting a value on skills that a generation of fans thought would remain in the archives along with the names of Osgood, Hudson and Cooke.
Hoddle decided that the tendinitis he had been suffering was bad enough to bar him from consideration yesterday, but with Dennis Wise and Craig Burley, the other doubtfuls, able to start, Chelsea theoretically had almost everyone they wanted - apart from Mark Stein, who had done so much to revive them in the Premiership. Not that for the early part of the game it counted for much against Luton's settled yet largely inexperienced side.
Chelsea's hesitation soon passed. Peacock, who, with Luton's Scott Oakes, had always been expected to be a likely match winner, turned the Hatters' defence into brittle straw when after 13 minutes Frank Sinclair's long, high free-kick dropped just inside the penalty area. Tony Cascarino, replacing Stein, headed on, John Spencer added a yard or two with another header and Peacock lodged a left-foot shot confidently past the American goalkeeper, Juergen Sommer.
Cascarino may not be the most able of players on the ground, but in the air he takes a lot of controlling, as Luton's usually reliable central defence discovered. Hardly a ball put high into the area was not won by Cascarino, which greatly increased Chelsea's confidence. Much as Trevor Peake worked to bring Luton back, the danger from Chelsea's rapid breakaways never subsided, though few of them had much of the attractive flow that had been anticipated.
Once behind, Luton's own confidence ebbed. Peake and John Dreyer made hesitant attempts to stop Steve Clarke infiltrating the penalty area after half an hour. Sommer clogged the attack but the signs were there that if Chelsea could keep calm, the tie would be theirs.
Peacock was clearly the player most likely to guarantee Chelsea's security but when Burley succumbed to a recurrence of his hamstring injury, Luton were slightly advantaged. Their hope was short-lived.
Three minutes into the second half and Peacock was again winning the ball in deep midfield. Having got the attack moving, he ran on and regained the ball in the penalty area from Spencer and without apparent difficulty again beat Sommer.
Creative football, which had been expected from both sides, was sadly lacking. Luton, forgivably perhaps, looked at their situation and began to think that getting to Wembley was not a bad achievement in itself. That must put the whole idea of playing semi-finals where only finals should be staged into perspective.
There was a resigned tiredness about Luton's final attempts to drag themselves back into a game fading with the dusk. How it would have benefited from a few minutes of Hoddle.
In the end, Sinclair was absolutely dominant in the penalty area and Dixon more or less resigned to the feeling that the chance of achieving anything against his former club was fast receding. Even when Julian James had a free header from close range, his nerve failed when on most Saturdays he would have put the ball away without a second thought. That was Luton's kind of day.
Chelsea should resist too much confidence. Their performance was good enough, but their contribution to a disappointing semi-final was nowhere near impressive enough. Come the final, they will not be able to get away with a performance that only convinces the long-awaiting faithful who filled Wembley with the news that 'Chelsea are back' last night.
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