A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s third round FA Cup tie at home to Nottingham Forest.
Chelsea’s defence of the FA Cup started this Saturday with a home tie against Nottingham Forest in the 3rd round. As The Blues begin their journey in which they hope to reach their 3rd consecutive final in this competition, they came up against a side that have beaten the holders on 5 out of the 6 times they have been drawn against them, including knocking out Arsenal at this stage last season.
Maurizio Sarri, with one eye on Tuesday’s League Cup semi final away at Tottenham Hotspur, made multiple changes to his starting XI. Kepa Arrizabalaga, Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard were all rested down to the substitute’s bench, while Marcos Alonso and Mateo Kovacic were given the day off.
So with Olivier Giroud, Pedro and Willian all missing through injury, the Italian opted for Alvaro Morata to lead the front line, flanked by Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Ross Barkley was joined in midfield by Ethan Ampadu, while Emerson Palmieri, Andreas Christensen and Davide Zappacosta lined up alongside David Luiz in defence, protecting Willy Caballero in goal.
But a special place, and the captain’s armband, was given to Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard, making his 138th appearance for The Blues, sat deep in midfield ready to dictate and control his final match in English football.
Aitor Karanka only lightly shuffled his pack as Forest arrived with hope of an opportunity to create another upset, with Chelsea’s mind partially focused on other competitions. His side lie just outside the play off places in the Championship after defeating the division leaders Leeds United at home on New Year’s Day and surely arrived with belief that they could knock out another cup holder.
The match started as expected. Chelsea enjoyed large portions of possession, while the visitors defended deep. But as The Blues players moved the ball about, Forest’s players worked hard to cover any space and were tough in their challenges in attempts to break down the home side’s attacks.
Chances were therefore few and far between, but The Blues had no assistance from referee Andy Madley. The match official seemed to have put his contact lenses in the wrong way round as he missed Claudio Jacob’s blatant wrestling of Andreas Christensen to the ground and then the Argentinian make shift centre back deliberately tripped Alvaro Morata as he ran on to a through ball heading into the area. If correctly called, or even if VAR had been used in this tie, The Blues would have been awarded an early penalty, a free kick in a perfect position and Forest’s most robust player would have been booked and then shown a straight red card.
Instead, The Blues had to wait until 30 minutes before being awarded a great opportunity to open the score. Danny Fox tripped a marauding Loftus-Cheek and a penalty was finally given. It meant the moment all Chelsea fans had been hoping for had arrived. Fabregas was handed the ball and all the home support excitedly anticipated their Spanish wizard marking his final Chelsea match with the opening goal. Alas, the footballing gods were against all in blue and the 31 year old over hesitated and lost all confidence before striking his spot kick weakly.
The Blues continued to press forward as Zappacosta, Morata and Barkley all came close to breaking the deadlock. Unfortunately on 42 minutes, Sarri’s injury hit attacking options received another blow as Loftus-Cheek needed to be replaced after appearing to tweak his back, which could render him unavailable for a matter of weeks.
His replacement was Eden Hazard who immediately tried to make an impact. However it was Hudson-Odoi who eventually made the difference. On 49 minutes the much sought after young Englishman dropped his shoulder, made himself a couple of yards and fired in a delightful cross which Morata eagerly tapped in for his first goal in 6 matches.
Then on 58 minutes an incisive move by Barkley set up the goal scorer with what appeared to be the easiest finish possible. However, the striker managed to defy the laws of physics by missing from almost on the goal line. Some of Morata’s blushes were saved by the linesman’s offside flag, but his miss will be on all future blooper videos.
Almost immediately Hudson-Odoi then repeated his earlier assist skills as even 2 markers could not prevent him from firing in another peach of a cross which Morata dispatched beyond Luke Steele.
With that the tie was effectively over. The visitors had offered little going forward. Adlene Guedioura had a couple of attempts, the better of which was easily saved by Willy Caballero. Daryl Murphy, even with his height, strength and heading prowess made little difference to Forest’s attacks and was well marshalled by Luiz and Christensen.
It was a deserved win for the current FA Cup holders, who dominated the entire match against a Forest side who gave everything in their attempt to cause an upset, but fell short of denying Chelsea’s passage in to the next round.
Even with Morata scoring twice, David Luiz being solid and assured in defence, Barkley and Palmieri performing very well all over the pitch and the mercurial Hazard playing for nearly 50 minutes, there was another player who outshone all others.
Callum Hudson-Odoi was the main reason that The Blues are through. His running, shooting and general wing play was of a very high order. As the opposition started to tire in the second half, the youngster really took control of the tie.
But it is the significance of what he brings to the team that must not be under estimated. All of Chelsea’s other wide attackers love to cut inside with the ball. They either run into defensive cul-de-sacs or The Blues’s possession just moves from side to side. This also means there is minimal space for Morata, who ends up as another spectator most of the time. Hudson-Odoi’s ability to make space for his wonderful crosses are clearly what Morata, and probably Olivier Giroud, can thrive upon. Sarri will do well to make far more use of this other line of attack, especially as Chelsea’s young star will surely only continue to improve.
Finally there is Cesc Fabregas and his emotional farewell. Who could have believed a player who was so significant for Arsenal and Barcelona could move to West London and become such a favourite at Chelsea Football Club. An incredibly talented player, but also a wonderful person who really understood what the fans love.
The statistics will show 22 goals, 57 assists, 2 Premier League titles, 1 FA Cup and 1 League Cup during his 4 and a half years at Chelsea. But it was the graceful way he approached every match and eagerness to make the club successful that will also be remembered. He possesses incredible vision, that is only matched by his array of passing skills, all of which meant he was very influential in all 4 trophies that he won with The Blues.
But when he was no longer a first team regular, there was never any public complaints or negative headlines. Instead, he worked and trained harder to get reinstalled into the team. Chelsea fans loved the player but fell in love with his character.
Straight after Chelsea had won the league away at West Bromwich Albion on a Friday evening in 2017, the little magician came out with the wonderful line “I f***ing love football”. Cesc deservedly has a fan’s favourite song which he also took to his heart. He and his magic hat will always have a home at Stamford Bridge and in our hearts.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue