In a season lived under the microscope Chelsea, and their manager, Claudio Ranieri, in particular, went into this FA Cup third-round replay facing fresh scrutiny. And not just because of their patchy form. There was another boss to impress. Sitting in the stands, for the first time since his appointment, was their new chief executive, Peter Kenyon, whose gardening leave, after his shock departure from Manchester United, is coming to an end.
Chelsea have been on a bit of gardening leave themselves of late, winning just three of their last seven contests. But they produced a performance of professional intent with an understandably bolstered side; no rest this time in what was their 34th game of an exhausting season, finally to defeat the waspish challenge of last year's semi-finalists. The margin, though harsh, was not unfair on the First Division side.
In winning, Chelsea confirmed one of the most extraordinary ties in the competition's history, away to non-league Scarborough in the next round. At the McCain Stadium, the minnows will sink or swim with the Big Fish.
"I've never been there," Ranieri said with self-deprecating humour. "Not yet. I know it is a nice place and a good beach, although not for me, I'm used to going to a warmer place. John Terry and Frank Lampard, the English players, maybe they like the weather. But I'm very happy to go there as it is the FA Cup and wonderful for that reason. It will be a party - but not on the pitch."
Talking of which, Ranieri made five changes after almost coming unstuck on the sticky stuff at Vicarage Road. But, crucially, having recalled many of last season's pre-Abramovich players for the restorative victory against Leicester City last weekend, there was just one alteration from that line-up with Adrian Mutu, a goalscoring substitute, starting.
It was time for the tried and tested. Importantly, however, Damien Duff was on the bench after his shoulder injury. "My mother will be happy," Ranieri said of the return of her favourite player. "He's important." His absence has been sorely felt - in more ways than one - coinciding with the seasonal dip which has reawakened questions over Ranieri.
Watford were denied their talisman with Heidar Helguson, who had so dominated Marcel Desailly in the first match, injured. It was difficult to see from where goals would come. "We missed him badly," the Watford manager, Ray Lewington, admitted. And yet they started at a frantic pace, forcing four corners inside the first four minutes, one of which flashed alarmingly across the Chelsea goal.
That intensity was brought to a shuddering halt. Lampard was allowed to shoot from distance and Lenny Pidgeley - the fifth-choice Chelsea goalkeeper who is on loan - beat it out unconvincingly. The ball was returned and Mutu, seemingly offside, poked it in. The referee's assistant flagged but, after discussions with the referee, Alan Wiley, the goal stood. Crucially the touch to the Romanian came from Watford's Neal Ardley. Good refereeing. After no goals in two months, it was Mutu's second in eight minutes. "That was vital," Lewington said. "The goal changed the game. It was the thing we were dreading most." Ranieri concurred.
Undiminished, however, Watford chased with Bruce Dyer and the aggressive Paul Devlin prominent. After a mêlée, Jamie Hand dug out a shot which struck the outside of Carlo Cudicini's post. It proved crucial. Almost immediately a long ball from William Gallas was cushioned by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, in behind a flat defence, and he took one feathery touch before driving right-footed under Pidgeley. Having not played well, Chelsea were two strikes clear.
After the break, Joe Cole, - who looked uncomfortable, perhaps discomfited over fresh speculation about his future, which has been denied - flashed wildly at a shot when he should have scored. Reprieved, this time, Watford pushed on. A header from Neil Cox drifted wide and a shot by Gavin Mahon screwed across goal.
Lewington, encouraged, brought on two forwards, Danny Webber and the former Ryman League player Scott Fitzgerald. The latter almost made an arresting impact. Chasing down a back-pass, Fitzgerald charged down Cudicini's clearance only for the ball to drift away.
As with the other Watford opportunities it was followed by a Chelsea goal. Lampard lofted and Mutu stretched to bring the ball down nimbly. In one fluid movement he turned and curled his shot into the far corner. Confidence restored, he made way for Duff.
Quickly Duff combined with another substitute, Eidur Gudjohnsen, and the Icelander's first-time shot was directed consummately around Pidgeley. For Watford there was no reward - apart, of course, from the £700,000 earned from this tie.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini; Melchiot, Gallas (Huth, 82), Terry, Babayaro; Gronkjaer, Makelele, Lampard, Cole; Mutu (Duff, 80), Hasselbaink (Gudjohnsen, 70). Substitutes not used: Sullivan (gk), Johnson.
Watford (4-5-1): Pidgeley; Ardley, Cox, Gayle, Smith; Devlin, Hyde, Mahon, Cook (Fitzgerald, 59), Hand (Doyley, 82); Dyer (Webber, 59). Substitutes not used: Chamberlain (gk), Brown.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).Reuse content