Someone must have had to explain to Fabio Capello exactly what this strange Carling Cup competition was all about but when it came to the performance of Shaun Wright-Phillips, no such explanation was necessary. As the new England manager watched, Chelsea's English nearly-man delivered his performance of the season to give Avram Grant's 10-man team a dramatic last-minute win.
At Goodison Park on 23 January, Chelsea will defend a one-goal lead in the Carling Cup semi-final second leg that came from the most improbable source. With injury-time ticking away, the 5ft 6in tall Wright-Phillips leapt above Joleon Lescott to force the Everton defender into scoring a bizarre own goal. Advantage Chelsea, but there is life left in this tie yet.
John Obi Mikel's moment of madness came in the 54th minute to earn him his fourth red card of his short Chelsea career, a studs-up lunge on Phil Neville that sent the Everton captain spinning. Off went Mikel and back surged Everton to level with a brilliant volley from Ayegbeni Yakubu after Wright-Phillips had scored earlier. Then, in the closing seconds, the little Chelsea winger reinvented himself as Nat Lofthouse to win the match.
Plenty to think about for Capello, watching his third English cup tie in four days. So far he has watched Wayne Rooney turn a game against Aston Villa, Peter Crouch rescue Liverpool and last night he got a first-hand view of an England international who has divided opinion since he scored on his debut for the national team against Ukraine in August 2004. Wright-Phillips certainly picked his moment.
First the 24m man found himself in central midfield alongside Michael Ballack and then, with Chelsea reduced to 10 men, he was thrown into attack on his own. Claudio Pizarro was replaced by Paulo Ferreira as Avram Grant took the conservative option. Wright-Phillips was thrust up front and his part in the winning goal conspired to make his manager look like a tactical genius.
What are Chelsea to do with Mikel? For such an accomplished midfielder he seems unable to tell the difference between a 50-50 ball and a lost cause. His lunge at Neville was not as wince-inducing as the challenge on Patrice Evra at Old Trafford in September that earned him a red card against Manchester United but it was certainly not the smartest tackle. A consolation is that Mikel's three-match ban will coincide with his absence at the African Nations Cup in Ghana this month.
Doing his best to be completely unmemorable in the post-match press conference, Grant did say he had reason to believe Everton were lucky to get away without a red card themselves. Specifically he must have been talking about Lee Carsley's rush of blood in the opening few moments in which he was booked for dissent and then up-ended Wright-Phillips. But, on balance, referee Peter Walton got this game right.
Perhaps Grant is starting to feel the pressure he may wave away any attempt to bring Jose Mourinho back into the narrative but there is no doubt that this trophy would be of great use to the new Chelsea manager. His predecessor won it in his first season and this time around, with Arsenal playing the kids, Chelsea are still the favourites.
The first Chelsea goal was uncharacteristic of an Everton side so rigorously well-organised by David Moyes. Florent Malouda cut in and threaded a ball into the box. There to receive it was Wright-Phillips, completely unmarked, who turned and bent a beautifully-hit shot inside Tim Howard's left-hand post.
Mikel was sent off nine minutes after the break and soon after he was followed byJoe Cole. It was Cole's misfortune that he had to be replaced by another holding midfielder, Steven Sidwell, especially as Pizarro was a more obvious candidate to be taken off.
Everton struck when James McFadden's free-kick from the left was cut back at the far post by Joseph Yobo and Yakubu volleyed it home. For Everton, this precious away goal will only count double if the aggregate score is level after extra-time in the second leg.
McFadden had hit the post in the 69th minute and then an extraordinary ending. In injury time, Ballack struck a long looping ball back into the box and, under pressure from the leaping Wright-Phillips, Lescott inadvertently headed the ball past Howard. Not the most auspicious start for the Everton defender in front of Capello but Wright-Phillips can rest assured that the new England manager knows exactly who he is.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Hilario; Belletti, Alex, Carvalho, Bridge; Mikel; J Cole (Sidwell, 61), Wright-Phillips, Ballack, Malouda; Pizarro (Ferreira, 83). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Ben Haim, Sahar.
Everton (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Yobo, Jagielka, Lescott; Cahill, Neville, Carsley, McFadden; Johnson, Yakubu (Anichebe, 89). Substitutes not used: Wessels (gk), Gravesen, Vaughan, Valente.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).Reuse content