Two teams close to full strength provided a far more even contest at Stamford Bridge last night than the previous evening's Worthington Cup quarter-finals and could not be separated until the final minute of stoppage time. Then Chelsea's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink stretched further than the visiting defenders to claim the only goal and a place in the semi-final alongside Blackburn, Tottenham and either Sheffield Wednesday or Watford, who meet next Wednesday. Gianluca Vialli's side would do nicely.
Going into the 92nd minute, Newcastle, having finally managed a first win south of The Wash in four years at Ipswich on Sunday must have had reasonable expectation that they might even leave London victorious, whether in extra-time or on penalties. Instead, an extraordinary run was extended to 29 matches in the capital without success, six of them against Chelsea.
It was one of their better performances in that period, which made the manner of the defeat all the harder to take for manager Bobby Robson and their ever-loyal supporters. "I thought it would go to penalties, to be honest," Robson said, "because there weren't too many chances being made." At least, like Claudio Ranieri, he was among the managers taking the competition seriously, fielding the best side he could in the absence of Laurent Robert. "I respected the competition, because we wanted to win it," he said. "For us and for Chelsea, it's worthy of winning."
Had Craig Bellamy not miscued horribly when clean through shortly before half-time, Newcastle could have been on their way. Using his pace to break onto Gary Speed's pass, he shot closer to the corner flag than the goal. Bellamy's speed, allied to Alan Shearer's wiles, made the evening a good test for the young Chelsea defender John Terry and he stood up well, in every sense, apart from being beaten in the air to Nolberto Solano's free-kick after 35 minutes, Shearer's powerful header just clearing the bar.
Chelsea had been closer early on, Slavisa Jokanovic who has yet to win over their supporters lobbing onto the bar with Shay Given stranded as he came for Hasselbaink's flick. Eidur Gudjohnsen brushed off Nikos Dabizas and shot straight at Given, and Hasselbaink could not get a boot onto Mario Melchiot's tempting low cross. Gudjohnsen then shot into the side-netting after his striking partner had held the ball up well for him.
To the relief of Chelsea's followers and, no doubt, players Ranieri has become convinced of the virtues of a settled side. For the third game running he made only one change, bringing back Graeme Le Saux as captain in place of Mario Stanic. The Italian could still not resist a substitution at the interval, replacing Jokanovic to cheers with Stanic, whose introduction on the right allowed Frank Lampard to move to his natural position in the centre of midfield. The effect was largely positive and a modest crowd of 27,613 found their voices as Given had to make a fine one-handed save to deny Gudjohnsen, before pushing Sam Dalla Bona's drive for a corner.
With extra-time looking a good bet, each manager went for some running power down the left, introducing Boudewijn Zenden and Kieron Dyer respectively. Although Newcastle's Andy O'Brien was twice close to heading in late corners, it was the unpredictable Zenden who engineered a breakthrough. Sent down the wing by Lampard, he crossed low for Hasselbaink, in a better position than his marker, to stab in.
That meant a fifth defeat in 25 games this season for Robson's team. Chelsea, beaten only three times in 23 matches, are looking up and looking towards Cardiff.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini; Melchiot, Gallas, Terry, Babayaro; Lampard, Jokanovic (Stanic, h-t), Dalla Bona, Le Saux (Zenden, 68); Gudjohnsen (Zola, 77), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: De Goey (gk), Forssell.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Hughes, O'Brien, Dabizas, Elliott; Solano, Speed, Lee (Lua-Lua, 90), Bernard (Dyer, 71); Bellamy, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Ameobi, Distin.
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).