A Watford side in danger of relegation to League One gave Chelsea's temporary manager Guus Hiddink plenty to ponder before a hat-trick in 15 minutes from Nicolas Anelka guided his team into the FA Cup quarter final for a fourth successive season. Watching from the directors' box alongside his patron Roman Abramovich, Hiddink saw the home side take an unlikely lead with only 21 minutes to play before the Frenchman's dramatic intervention.
Three clinical strikes, taking Anelka's total to 20 this season, were in contrast to many of their previously profligate efforts. The turnaround also came after little Miroslav Stoch was brought on with Chelsea one-nil down, changing the formation to the 4-4-2 that Luiz Felipe Scolari believed was impractical because their wide players lack of defensive nous.
Before that Anelka and Didier Drogba had alternated between their best position in the centre and a berth wide on the right that suits neither. There is still much for Hiddink to sort out and he will presumably believe that the FA Cup offers a more realistic prospect of a trophy than either the Premier League or European Cup. Hiddink visited Chelsea's dressing room before and after the game but Ray Wilkins picked the team, as well as making the crucial tactical change when Watford scored.
"I thought we were outstanding against a world-class squad," said Brendan Rodgers, who has made a good impression since leaving his position as Chelsea's reserve-team manager to succeed Aidy Boothroyd at Watford. "I'm very proud of the club tonight. With 20 minutes left, I thought, 'Here we go', but I should have known better because I've worked with these guys." So it proved.
Losing to a struggling Championship side (Barnsley) in the FA Cup last season effectively cost Avram Grant his job, even though he was allowed to carry on all the way to the Champions' League final. Scolari was not allowed either opportunity and his goose might have been cooked even earlier had Petr Cech not brought off a stunning save to prevent Chelsea falling two goals behind in the third-round replay at Southend.
The London side survived that day and Cech was back from injury here to take his place behind an unfamiliar back four. Michael Mancienne was at right-back – where he was caught out for the goal – with Branislav Ivanovic partnering Alex in the centre because of John Terry's suspension. Frank Lampard was outstanding in front of a father who as a Watford consultant was in the rare position of wanting his son to lose. Further forward, it took Drogba and Anelka 35 minutes to link up effectively but when they did, Anelka struck a post.
Before that Watford's goalkeeper Scott Loach twice had to fist away fierce drives by Drogba and Lampard, and Alex headed a corner just over the bar. Rodgers might have been forgiven for packing his midfield to combat the players he knows so well but to his credit he went with two forwards, pushing Will Hoskins up alongside Grzegorz Rasiak. Watford were pleased to reach the interval on level terms, having competed well but found it difficult to put the makeshift visiting defence under pressure. Their best moments until the goal were headers by Adrian Mariappa and then Rasiak.
For 25 minutes in the second half Chelsea camped in opposition territory, so that it was all the more of a shock when Watford scored. Drogba, latching on to Ivanovic's long pass, drew a fine one-handed save from Loach, and then Lampard flashed a shot just past the post. In the nextattack Ashley Cole of all people blocked a shot by Drogba, the ball rebounding to the ineffective Michael Ballack, who from six yards hit it too high.
In the 69th minute, however, Vicarage Road was given reason to dream. It was just about their team's first serious attack since the interval when the Hungarian striker Tamas Priskin, only just on as a substitute, raced on to a pass down the left from Lloyd Doyley and dinked it over Cech.
The dream lasted only six minutes. From Chelsea's 15th corner, the substitute Stoch flicked on and Anelka produced an equalising overhead kick and within 90 seconds he headed in a cross from Cole, who had been set up by Drogba. Still Watford were not done and Jobi McAnuff would have brought the score level again but for Cech's save at close-range. It was added time before Anelka completed hishat-trick from Salomon Kalou's pass.
Referee: Mike Dean
Man of the match: Anelka
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content