Chelsea required a late hat-trick from Nicolas Anelka last night to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals for the fourth successive season after trailing 1-0 to lowly Championship side Watford with 20 minutes to play. Guus Hiddink, placed in charge last week until the end of the season, visited the dressing-room after the game and must have felt as much relief as satisfaction with a wasteful performance.
The London side had more than 20 attempts on goal but only Anelka could convert one and it took a switch from the normal 4-3-3 formation to prevent a repetition of last season's embarrassing Cup defeat by Barnsley.
Ray Wilkins, who chose the team and the tactics, said: "We had a scare but overall the performance merited a victory. We showed tremendous character to come back. People keep saying it's been a difficult season but we're still in three competitions." Watford's manager, Brendan Rodgers, a former Chelsea employee, was "very proud of the club, supporters and players".
Chelsea will be relieved to avoid a replay, which could not have been fitted in until the day of the sixth round, but bizarrely, all yesterday's other ties were drawn. Coventry of the Championship were seconds away from shocking Blackburn at Ewood Park, Christopher Samba earning Rovers a 2-2 draw.
Middlesbrough also looked to be heading for a surprise win at West Ham when a rare Stewart Downing header put them 1-0 up, before Herita Ilunga headed an equaliser.
Sheffield United also sniffed an upset when they took the lead at home to Hull, but Kamil Zayatte powerfully headed in for a 1-1 draw. It was the same scoreline at Swansea, where Fulham took an undeserved lead before a superb strike by Jason Scotland earned the hosts a well-merited second chance.
In the Premier League, managerless Portsmouth earned a valuable three points with a 2-0 win over Manchester City with goals from defenders Glen Johnson and Hermann Hreidarsson.
David Beckham has a big chance to convince Milan of his worth in tonight's derby against Serie A leaders Internazionale. Yesterday Milan refused to be put off signing him despite LA Galaxy's insistence that he will return when his loan ends on 8 March. Milan's coach, Carlo Ancelotti, thinks a move is still on, saying: "There's time before 8 March, we've still got 20 days."