Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa may be sick of the sight of each other before January is out. Paired together in the third round of the FA Cup last Sunday, they were also drawn to meet over two legs in the semi-finals of the Carling Cup after Blackburn squeezed past Chelsea on penalties at the end of this pulsating tie.
The shoot-out was a personal triumph for Paul Robinson, who made brilliant saves from Michael Ballack and Gaël Kakuta. However, Blackburn would not have had to endure the lottery of spot-kicks if the England goalkeeper had not made such a poor fist of punching Florent Malouda's free-kick in the final minute of extra-time stoppage time.
Paulo Ferreira exploited his mistake to tie the scores, to give Chelsea, who had played with 10 men for 49 minutes after Salomon Kalou went off injured, the opportunity to earn a date with Villa. Instead, Robinson achieved instant redemption, flying to his left to tip Ballack's penalty on to the post and then, after Nikola Kalinic had missed to revive the Premier League leaders' hopes, parrying a firmly struck effort by substitute Kakuta.
Perhaps it was as well, given all the twists and turns, that Sam Allardyce stayed away from the game. Blackburn's manager was at home convalescing from heart surgery, leaving his assistant, the former Carlisle manager Neil McDonald, to tangle with Carlo Ancelotti before emerging triumphant if somewhat frazzled by the events of the previous 120 minutes.
Blackburn had begun brightly and led early on through Kalinic, only for Didier Drogba, one of three second-half substitutes, and Kalou to put Chelsea in control. After being pegged back when Brett Emerton's cross appeared to go straight in, and depleted by Kalou's exit, they faced an uphill struggle. Yet even after Benni McCarthy put the home side in front from the spot at the start of extra time, they had sufficient spirit to make Blackburn wait for their victory.
McDonald hailed Robinson's saving grace. "We can slightly point the finger for him not punching the ball away right at the death," he said. "But he made a couple of great saves in the shoot-out. For him to experience that right at the end and then pull himself together emotionally to do that was fantastic."
Ancelotti, whose previous encounter with Blackburn, in October, had delivered a 5-0 romp, was pressed as to why Kakuta took the decisive penalty. The French midfielder, whose signing from Lens landed Chelsea in hot water with Uefa, is only 18 and had made just one substitute appearance before last night. Had he volunteered to take it? "No. I put him in," the Italian replied. "I chose him because I saw him in training and he was very good."
Kalinic's opener stemmed from a slick build-up, which belied Blackburn's reputation for long-ball football under Allardyce. Jason Roberts laid the ball back to Morten Gamst Pedersen, whose laser pass found the overlapping Pascal Chimbonda. A textbook cut-back gave the £6m Croat the chance to steer his first goal for Blackburn from open play past Henrique Hilario.
Chelsea, showing eight changes from the team that routed Arsenal on Sunday, came to life when Ancelotti sent on Drogba after the break. In less than three minutes, he rose above Ryan Nelsen to power home his 15th goal of the season. Four minutes later, after Michel Salgado lost possession in the visitors' half, Yuri Zhirkov's long, diagional pass sent Kalou racing clear to side-foot past Robinson.
Kalinic wheeled away with arm raised after climbing to Emerton's 64th-minute cross. Yet the goal will surely belong to the Australian, even though the ball appeared to take slight deflections off Jon Obi Mikel and perhaps Branislav Ivanovic on its way in.
The extra half-hour was just three minutes old when Zhirkov fouled Junior Hoillet, letting McCarthy score for the third round running. Hoillet, a lively if excitable substitute, wasted a gilt-edged opportunity to make it 4-2, blazing wide with an unmarked McCarthy screaming for the ball. Kalinic also gave away the ball to provoke the pressure that led to Ferreira's finish, but Blackburn were not to be denied.
Blackburn Rovers (4-3-1-2): Robinson; Salgado, Samba, Nelsen, Chimbonda; Emerton, Nzonzi, Pedersen (Grella, 62); McCarthy; Roberts (Hoilett, 70), Kalinic. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Givet, Diouf, Van Heerden, Jones.
Chelsea (4-4-1-1): Hilario; Belletti (Bruma, h-t), Ferreira, Ivanovic, Zhirkov; J Cole (Kakuta, h-t), Ballack, Mikel, Malouda; Deco (Drogba h-t); Kalou. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Matic, Hutchinson, Borini.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).