Marcos Alonso’s extra-time strike put Chelsea in the hat for Round Five of the Emirates FA Cup after coming from behind to beat Plymouth Argyle 2-1 at Stamford Bridge.
The League One guests took an early lead through Macaulay Gillesphey, but were forced to absorb pressure from their hosts for nearly two hours. Eventually, Plymouth’s daring defence cracked and goals from Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso saw the European champions through what proved to be a tough test. Argyle failed to equalise late when Ryan Hardie missed a penalty.
Chelsea fielded a remarkably strong team, making just one change to the side that beat Tottenham Hotspur in Premier League action two weeks ago. Andreas Christensen returned to the starting line-up having been sidelined with an injury since early January, with Thiago Silva axed from the team after he was away on international duty.
Blues boss Thomas Tuchel was not in attendance after testing positive for coronavirus shortly before kick-off. Arno Michels was trusted with control of the side.
Steven Schumacher named three changes to his ranks following a 3-1 win against Doncaster Rovers last week. Panutche Camara, Danny Mayor and Jordan Garrick – who scored off the bench in Yorkshire – started, while Niall Ennis, Ryan Broom and Adam Randell were named among the substututes.
Story of the match
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea started much the better side and dominated possession in the early stages. A number of half-chances were comfortably gathered by goalkeeper Michael Cooper, who seemed relieved to get his eye in so soon.
With their first venture beyond the halfway line, Argyle took a shock lead on eight minutes. Former Chelsea man Jordan Houghton whipped a free-kick into the area, which Gillesphey flicked home for his first goal of the season.
The Blues looked to respond immediately, but Matteo Kovacic saw his shot from the edge of the box crash into the crossbar and cleared to safety.
Argyle’s defence stayed resolute and disciplined as Chelsea pressed higher and higher, but they struggled to make use of their infrequent breaks as panicked clearances fell to the feet of the European champions.
Cooper was called upon to make a brilliant, reflex stop as Hakim Ziyech fired an effort towards goal. The Moroccan’s shot took a cruel deflection off a lunging defender, but 22-year-old Cooper was wise to the diversion.
The hosts saw another attempt bounce off the crossbar on the half-hour mark, when Callum Hudson-Odoi latched onto a deep cross from the wing and glanced the ball off the woodwork from the six-yard box. Again, Plymouth could scramble the ball away from danger after bravely blocking a further two efforts from Kovacic and Mason Mount respectively.
Azpilicueta was the next Blue to have a thundering effort thwarted by Cooper. The Spaniard picked up possession outside the penalty area and drove towards the net, firing a ferocious strike from range on his second touch. The blistering shot was headed for the bottom-right corner, but the ‘keeper stretched well to get a glove to the ball.
On 36 minutes, Chelsea struck the woodwork for the third time. Romelu Lukaku teed a neat ball up for Kovacic to attack. The Croatian’s right-footed effort from the edge of the box was beyond the reach of Cooper but smashed the inside of the left-hand upright before being cleared.
The Blues finally got the goal they had threatened in the 40th minute. Jorginho laid the ball through for Mount wide on the right, who fired a delicious, low cross across the face of goal, where Azpilicueta, his captain, was waiting. The 32-year-old executed a fancy flick from close range to chalk up his first-ever FA Cup goal.
Chelsea got off to a rapid start in the second half, and came agonisingly close to taking the lead on 52 minutes. A one-two wide on the right allowed space for Ziyech to blast a delivery across the box. Burly striker Lukaku arrived on the scene at great pace, but his stretched lunge for the ball at the back post was just millimetres shy of converting into Cooper’s empty net.
Just before the hour mark, Azpilicueta had the ball in the net for the second time, but the linesman’s flag was promptly raised as the veteran had strayed offside after the initial corner-kick delivery pinballed around the area.
On 65 minutes, substitute Kai Havertz found himself in behind the Argyle defence with his first touch of the game, having received the ball from Kepa Arrizabalaga’s clever, quick distribution. Havertz had teammates for company but chose to go alone, allowing Plymouth right-back Joe Edwards to get back and throw himself in front of the ball.
Cooper pulled off another stunning save in the 73rd minute. Mount drove a vicious, left-footed shot 16 yards, which Cooper reacted to excellently to tip the curling effort over the bar. The youngster then confidently claimed the resulting corner, much to the delight of the 6,000 travelling supporters.
As the full-time whistle loomed, Lukaku picked up possession from a sloppy pass across Argyle’s defence and slid a lush ball through for substitute Timo Werner. Werner steadied himself as Cooper rushed off his line, but the hesitation gave backtracking centre-half James Wilson an opportunity to make a sumptuous challenge and ensured the tie went to Extra Time.
Chelsea put their noses in front in injury time at the end of the first half of Extra Time. Havertz broke free of the tiring opposition on the left flank and squared a teasing ball across from the bye line for Alonso to poke home beyond a hapless Cooper.
Argyle enjoyed a positive spell in the second half of Extra Time and were awarded a penalty five minutes from time when Malang Sarr bundled Scotsman Hardie to the ground. Hardie, who made his appearance off the bench, stepped up to the spot-kick but saw it saved well by Arrizabalaga, who had to stretch well to keep it out.
Takeaway from the match
First half shows an Argyle on the up
Plymouth Argyle enjoyed a brilliant first half, despite heading into the break level. In the face of a sold-out crowd backing the champions of Europe, the League One side defended valiantly, putting their bodies on the line as they kept out a full-strength attack for nearly three quarters of an hour.
Michael Cooper gave an excellent account of himself between the sticks as he made nine saves, while his five-strong backline were alert to deflections and rebounds. Steven Schumacher’s men stole an early lead with one of few attacks, and it took a half of plundering for Chelsea to undo their advantage.
Man of the match
Michael Cooper – Plymouth Argyle
Michael Cooper put in a world-class showing at Stamford Bridge, making nine saves as the onslaught from internationally-renowned attackers continued. Little could be done about the two efforts that got the better of him, and it surely will be a performance that attracts the attention of some of England’s top clubs. Cat-like reflexes and an aerial confidence restricted the home side to just two goals, in what could have gotten ugly had another man donned the gloves.