Late Kepa penalty save sees Chelsea survive threat of giant-killing to beat Plymouth in FA Cup

Chelsea 2-1 Plymouth (AET): Azpilicueta and Alonso strike to see the Blues come from behind to win in extra time – but they were indebted to goalkeeper Kepa to stop the match going all the way to penalties

Miguel Delaney
Stamford Bridge
Saturday 05 February 2022 16:51
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A day worth so much to Plymouth Argyle, that was fingertips away from being priceless.

It is still to their credit, and that of the unfortunate but unrelenting Ryan Hardie, that the European champions were dependent on the penalty-saving ability of their £71m goalkeeper to prevent this classic fourth-round tie from going to a shootout.

Kepa Arrizabalaga stopped Hardie’s penalty in the 117th minute of play, at a point when he looked like the only Chelsea player keeping his head, to just about keep the score at 2-1.

It could have been much worse, it could have been much better. Chelsea had over 40 shots in this match, and still required Kai Havertz – another £60m-plus signing, best known for scoring the winner in club football’s greatest game – carving the 105th-minute opportunity for Marcos Alonso to win it… just about.

Thomas Tuchel, watching at home after a positive Covid test, still had a lot to endure.

Plymouth still laid siege to the Chelsea goal thereafter, and the crestfallen reaction of the players at the final whistle said it all. Their defiant, deafening fans said even more.

They were proud of their players, as they produced a superb performance and one of the great cup ties. If the references to money grate on such days, they only serve to show why there is such emotion; why the win would mean so much. The display was so close to meaning everything.

All that was missing was an upset – as Chelsea missed chance after chance.

That it got so far was credit to Plymouth, who were so close to one of the cup’s stories.

There were still little stories within that.

Jordan Houghton spent 11 years at Chelsea as an academy graduate, but never got to set foot on the Stamford Bridge pitch for a senior appearance. Now, here he was, standing over a free-kick yards from the Chelsea goal as Plymouth felt that thrill of opportunity. Argyle had started the game well, and probably the better team. They soon had the better of the scoreline.

Houghton whipped in his free-kick, which had a decent chance of going straight in itself. Macaulay Gillesphey got a touch to make sure.

It made 6,000 fans behind the opposite goal elated. Goalkeeper Mike Cooper instinctively turned around to salute them, ratcheting it up that bit more.

It was at that end that the game very quickly started to take the feel of one of those days. The back-and-forth of the opening stages that Plymouth had shaded soon developed into one-way football.

Or, rather, Chelsea just set up outside Cooper’s box. The ball itself was going anywhere but in. It hit the frame of the goal three times before the break. Mateo Kovacic struck the crossbar from a surge, with Callum Hudson-Odoi then doing the same moments later with a header. The entire Plymouth team realised they had to fill the space in between but that just led to Kovacic striking the ball from distance – only to hit the post again.

Malang Sarr had to be alert to cut out one Plymouth counter in the midst of all this, but the game was mostly Chelsea looking for that opening. They needed something different. They got something very different, perhaps even unique – certainly in the career of Cesar Azpilicueta.

On 41 minutes, with Chelsea increasingly exploiting that bit more space down Plymouth’s right side, the right-back surged into the box. Mason Mount spotted the run and slid the ball across, allowing Azpilicueta to deftly flick the ball in with his in-step.

It used to be known as the “Lee Sharpe against Barcelona” before it became so widespread a number of players offered their own spins – not least Gianfranco Zola in this stadium in this competition – and it seemed the scorer himself became rather fond of it.

He pulled off the same soon into the second half, but was this time denied by the linesman’s flag.

That came in the middle of even more intense Chelsea play, as if the equaliser had at least released them from the anxiety of the prospect of such a humiliating defeat.

It still remained live, though, because the game remained live. They just couldn’t put the ball in the net. There were too many Plymouth bodies in the way and, when they finally got through with a Mount strike, Cooper did superbly to touch it over the bar.

You could say all this was further illustration that Romelu Lukaku still doesn’t fully fit with this Chelsea team, but then this was a League One team.

The European champions – lest we forget – did eventually bring on Havertz, albeit for Hudson-Odoi. It was no coincidence he was involved in the chance of the game or that it was from Plymouth finally having an attack again. This was the danger. From their first foray forward in the second half, Kepa Arrizabalaga released Havertz, who bore down on goal. It looked like the simplest one-on-one finish only for Plymouth captain Joe Edwards to appear out of nowhere and block brilliantly.

That, if you want to get a little whimsical about it, is what the cup should be about. It was also a chance that didn’t add up to the 40-plus shots Chelsea had. The same was true for Timo Werner moments later.

When Lukaku put the German through just before the end of 90, the forward would have had another clean run on goal had he used his abundant pace to just nick the ball past a League One defender. Instead, he seemed to back out of the moment, as James Wilson thundered the ball out of play.

Generally, though, there’s only so far that guile and commitment will take you. The thing about higher technical quality is that it pushes you to your limits, and stretches you.

So it was as their £71m Champions League winner found space on the left, Havertz squaring for Alonso to slide the ball in.

And yet the day still wasn’t done, as Plymouth weren’t done. They refused to accept the situation or the gap, laying siege to the Chelsea goal.

Such was the pressure that Sarr played a pass out of the back straight to Hardie, ultimately being panicked to take him down.

Hardie himself stepped up.

He was denied a priceless moment from a keeper worth £71m.

There’s no shame in that. There should only be pride.

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