Arsenal and Tottenham have a tough act to follow after Chelsea and Everton kicked off the Carling Cup semifinals with a thriller at Stamford Bridge.
It took more than 90 minutes to decide who would have an edge heading into the second leg, and in the end, it would be a costly mistake by an Everton defense that had been tested time and again, but were set for a passing grade until the 92nd minute, when a deserved result turned into defeat in a split second.
Avram Grant has already seen his squad decimated by injuries this season, but besides those absences, he was without Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien, and Didier Drogba, who have departed to join up with their squads for the upcoming African Cup of Nations, but still had the services of Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel.
As for Everton, manager David Moyes was forced to give up midfielder Steven Pienaar to his country earlier than he wanted, but he could take solace in the fact that defender Joseph Yobo and striker Yakubu, like their compatriot Mikel, haven’t had to take off just yet. And as it would turn out, those three were to play prominent roles during the match.
Chelsea were the better side in the early going, and they took a deserved lead in the 26th minute. Florent Malouda found a poorly-marked Wright-Phillips on the edge of the box, and as Lee Carsley and Yobo tried to close in on him, the diminutive winger let fly a cracker that rendered Tim Howard helpless, as it rocketed past him and in off of the far post for his second goal of the season.
Everton’s defense was almost punished again as Joe Cole burst past a trio of defenders and was set for a one-on-one with Howard. However, his momentum was disrupted by a challenge from behind on the edge of the box. Chelsea were given a free kick, but Michael Ballack wasn’t able to get enough curl on his effort, otherwise it would have been 2-0, with his shot having beaten the diving Howard.
The home side would have multiple chances to increase their lead as the match stretched into the second half, but the tide turned on 55, when Mikel was sent off for the second time this season for a poor challenge on Phil Neville.
There have been worse challenges in the history of football, but the Nigerian gets low marks on both timing and technique, as by the name he made contact with, the ball had already left Neville’s foot, and it didn’t help that his right foot came in high and studs up.
But, even after the sending-off, Chelsea pressed forward, and missed yet another opportunity to pad their advantage. Three minutes after Mikel got his marching orders, Claudio Pizarro broke free and Wright-Phillips’ pass left him with only the keeper to beat, but the party-hardy Peruvian’s shot was right at Howard.
They were made to rue those close calls in the 66th minute, as James McFadden lofted a free-kick into the box, which Yobo could have blasted past Hilario, but instead, he laid it back for Yakubu, who gladly obliged, firing a guided missile through a crowd and into the net.
At that moment, you couldn’t blame Avram Grant if he wasn’t too keen on Nigerians, including his own, but if you’re a Super Eagles fan, you have to be hoping that Yakubu’s finishing is every bit as clinical over the next few weeks in Ghana.
Everton weren’t able to capitalize on their man advantage and the momentum from the goal, and things looked set to be 1-all heading to the second leg, until Joleon Lescott fired home the winner for Chelsea in the second minute of injury time.
Unfortunately, Lescott is an Everton player, but you won’t get any complaints from the Chelsea faithful about the go-ahead goal, no matter who it came from.
The decisive sequence started innocently enough, as an attempted cross into the box was partially blocked, but unfortunately, it landed at the feet of Ballack, who decided he’d try an overhead flick and see who it could find. Lucky for him, it came to Wright-Phillips and Lescott, and as the 5’6 winger climbed the 6’2 defender like a tree, Lescott attempted to head the ball away.
The intentions might have been there, but the desired result wasn’t, as it went on the wrong side of the post, and into the net for a 2-1 Chelsea lead.
Lescott could have gone from goat to hero in the waning moments, as he had the goal calling his name and only Hilario between him and a 2-2 draw. But, it wasn’t to be, as he couldn’t quite get control of the ball, and as a result, his shot went right into the keeper’s body.
It was a cruel end for Everton, who would have had the ball squarely in their court come the second leg. However, it’s the cup holders blessing their luck and carrying the slimmest of advantages into the tie, which will be staged in a fortnight at Goodison Park.
You may as well call Wright-Phillips a leprechaun, and yes, that is in reference to his size, but also because he was the Blues’ lucky charm on Tuesday night, with his early strike only part of his contributions in the match, as he set up multiple opportunities, and at the end, he distracted Lescott enough to force him into his crucial mistake. Maybe the watching eye of Fabio Capello might have spurred him on, but whatever it was, it was a man of the match performance from SWP.
But, the Toffees can’t dwell on those last minutes and their missed opportunities for long, because they’re far from out of it.
They will be without their influential Africans, but come two weeks’ time, David Moyes will have his side focused and ready to get the result they need to at least force extra time.
As for Chelsea, they’ve got one foot in the door to Wembley and a chance to defend their title, but can’t rest on their laurels, because as we found out at Stamford, it only takes one little moment to turn everything upside down.
Who will take the initiative in the other semifinal? We’ll have a match report of the tie between fierce London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham following tonight’s encounter at the Emirates Stadium, so keep your browser on Soccerlens for all the latest on the Carling Cup and on the rest of the world of football as well.