Chelsea 2-1 Plymouth: Marcos Alonso’s extra-time winner saves Chelsea against battling Plymouth

    On a boisterous afternoon it took Chelsea 105 minutes, 39 shots and 19 corners to take the lead against Plymouth.

These are the kind of numbers that suggest a pasting, fourth-round FA Cup minnows hanging on by their toenails.

This was something else: a victory for Chelsea, but a day when Plymouth played neat, disciplined, counterattacking football, and really might have won. Deep into extra time Steve Schumacher’s team were spanking in shots at the Chelsea goal looking to force a shoot-out.

Chelsea’s occasional problems are clear enough, a well-calibrated passing and pressing machine that seems at times to be lulling itself to sleep. But Plymouth were a great tribute to the enduring strength of the lower tiers, and huge credit to their manager, who sounds like a disciple of the Ralf Rangnick atelier, but is from Liverpool.

Some perspective: Plymouth are seventh in League One, 12 points behind Rotherham. In extra time, Chelsea had Romelu Lukaku, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech on the pitch, a combined £280m of attacking talent, and all certainly standing quite near one another.

The visitors even missed a penalty five minutes from the end, Malang Sarr bringing down Ryan Hardie only for Hardie to see his kick well saved by Kepa Arrizabalaga. “I’m emotional,” Schumacher said. “I’m just really proud of the team. They gave everything they’ve got.”

The Plymouth end was a stirring sight, a sizeable portion of Devon packed into the full double-decker stand. And the Bridge was a lovely soft sunny spring-like place at kick-off, the game beginning in a mild lunchtime doze.

At which point something glorious happened. With seven minutes gone Plymouth won a free-kick on the left. The ball was swung in at a tempting angle by Jordan Houghton. Macauley Gillesphey flicked the ball on into the corner, unhindered by any real show of interest from Chelsea’s centre-backs or from Arrizabalaga, who stood on his line and watched.

Macauley Gillesphey celebrates after scoring for Plymouth against Chelsea.

Macaulay Gillesphey celebrates after scoring for Plymouth against Chelsea

There was unfenced joy in the green end, a startled roar that just kept on rumbling on, bodies tumbling across the aisles. It was also a lovely little snapshot in time for Houghton, who never quite made it on to this pitch as a senior Chelsea player, but who will now always have that moment in the February sunshine.

Thomas Tuchel had tested positive for Covid-19 before the game, the role of angry pointing tracksuited man filled by Arno Michels. Michels was unsure whether Tuchel would be able to travel to the Club World Cup, a sub-drama that must now be untangled.

But it would be hard to blame Tuchel’s absence. Chelsea were simply vague. Callum Hudson-Odoi headed on to the bar at the back post. Ten minutes before half-time Mateo Kovacic pinged a shot low and hard on to the foot of the post. Was this going to be one of those days where people talk about One of Those Days?

Mason Mount found just enough space to cross from the right. In the centre, César Azpilicueta conjured a craftsman’s finish, the Lee Sharp-style wrong-foot instep flick taking the ball past Mike Cooper.

Chelsea set off at a cagey sprint in the second half. There was pressure but little cutting edge. Lukaku did not particularly stand out, his touch a tittle blunt, movement unimaginative.

At the other end Hardie had a sight of goal but Arrizabalaga was able to smother his finish. Cooper then made a wonderful save to parry away Mount’s shot after a fine layoff from Lukaku, who often shows his best stuff taking the ball with movement around him.

Otherwise Chelsea continued to weave indistinct patterns. It is often a struggle for teams that play at this tempo, where your own command of possession becomes a problem to be untangled. At times what they really seem to need is a good version of Werner, an attacker with acceleration and the ability to work in small spaces, but also the ability to finish ruthlessly, or indeed, at all.

The final whistle brought another vast cheer from the Plymouth end. But just before half-time in extra time, Chelsea found their opening. It came down the left. Havertz skated wide then pulled back a low cross. Marcos Alonso had made the run inside, and had time and space to slip the ball easily past Cooper.

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