Chelsea's transfer policy bore fruit yesterday, six months down the line. Speculation is rife about who they might sign during the January transfer window, but it was two players recruited last summer who were behind this thrashing of Watford.
One arrived at Chelsea with a big reputation; the other came with a big price tag. Daniel Sturridge was tipped as one of the most promising young English players around when he joined from Manchester City on 3 July, for a transfer fee due to be settled by tribunal later this month.
Three days later Yuri Zhirkov joined from CSKA Moscow for a fee of £18m. Both players have taken their time to find their feet; Sturridge suffering from a loss of confidence while Zhirkov has been troubled with a persistent knee injury. The visit of Watford provided both players with an opportunity to showcase their talents, an opportunity that both seized with understandable relief. Sturridge, 20, caught the eye with two well-taken goals, his first for the club in his eighth appearance, five of which have come from the bench.
Sturridge opened the Watford gap with a perfunctory finish at the far post after John Terry had hit a low shot across goal. His second, Chelsea's fifth, was a better finish, a tidy touch and shot after an exquisite pass from Zhirkov had released Ashley Cole to cross from the left.
He should have had a hat-trick but for a fine one-handed save from Watford keeper Scott Loach, after Zhirkov had put him in the clear. It could prove to be a key moment for the England under-21 international who has been promised a run in the team by manager Carlo Ancelotti while Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are away on African Nations Cup duty. Playing in the centre of a three-pronged strike-force with Florent Malouda on the left and Joe Cole on the right, Sturridge led the line with energy and skill.
Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, was impressed with Sturridge's contribution. "This performance for him was very important," Ancelotti said. "It'll improve his confidence, his possibilities. He has a lot of potential and great quality, and he can show that now. He scored two goals and that's important for a striker, to score. He played very well for the whole match."
Ancelotti gave Sturridge treatment normally reserved for key players such as Drogba when he replaced him with 20 minutes to go. The manager showed his appreciation with a handshake, a hug and a pat on the back.
Zhirkov also provided evidence to suggest his fee might not be yet another case of Chelsea paying over the odds. He was bright and inventive, tidy on the ball but with the ability to provide a moment of unexpected subtlety. Competition for places is fierce on the left side for Chelsea, but Zhirkov did enough to demonstrate he will be pushing for a start now he has finally regained full fitness.
The game was over almost as soon as it had begun. Sturridge put Chelsea ahead in the fifth minute, and the FA Cup holders doubled their advantage after 14 minutes. Joe Cole's volley from Malouda's cross provoked chaotic scenes among the Watford defence. The ball struck Adrian Mariappa and then hit Frank Lampard's backside before John Eustace's attempt to clear ricocheted into his own head and into the Watford goal. Chelsea's third was scrappy too, coming when Zhirkov's shot was deflected past Loach thanks to a heavy deflection off Malouda who claimed the goal. A swerving shot by Frank Lampard from 25 yards that wobbled and dipped its way into the Watford goal brought Chelsea's fourth. Remarkably it was only his second goal from open play this season.
Watford made little impact, and forced just one save from Henrique Hilario in the Chelsea goal, a header by Jay Demerit from a corner, to cheer the 6,000 visiting fans sitting in the Shed End. All in all a perfect day for Ancelotti, who brushed aside a newspaper interview given by Malouda moaning about his lack of first-team chances. "There's no problem. It's normal that a player wants to play every game," he said. Chelsea were drawn to play Preston away in the fourth round.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Hilario; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, A Cole (Kakuta 74); Lampard, Belletti (Matic 64), Zhirkov; J Cole, Sturridge (Borini 70), Malouda. Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Carvalho, Ballack, Ferreira.
Watford (4-5-1): Loach; Hodson, Mariappa, Demerit, Doyley; Cowie (Harley 80), Severin (Jenkins h-t), Eustace, Lansbury, Cleverley; Graham (Henderson 80) Substitues not used: Lee (gk), Bennett, Hoskins, Kiernan.
Referee: K Friend (Leics)
Booked: Chelsea: Booked: Belletti, J Cole, Matic. Watford: Hodson, Eustace, Lansbury, Cleverley.
Man of the Match: Zhirkov
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies