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Jan 23, 2008

Resilient Chelsea reach cup final

Even when denigrating a competition Chelsea know how to progress in it. It is the least of their priorities, admitted the one-time Liverpool supporter Avram Grant, before proceeding to eliminate Everton. Over the last four seasons, the Carling Cup has practically become a private fiefdom, and now they are in a third final in that brief time-span.

And in the process they disappointed the majority. Two decades ago, the concept of Everton against Tottenham as the romantics' favoured final, or a clash of two underdogs would have been risible. Not now. Once members of an elite group of five, they were the semi-finalists who garnered plenty of support from outside their normal constituencies.

For those who object to the perpetual domination of the so-called 'big four', it would have been the ideal encounter at Wembley. Instead, Chelsea, practiced party-poopers, thwarted more than just the 35,000 Everton fans at Goodison Park.

As Joe Cole said at the weekend, they know how to win. They proved prescient words, Cole himself delivering victory in clinical, merciless fashion. Florent Malouda's cross-field ball cut out the Everton defence. Cole's first touch was to control it. His second was to rifle an unstoppable shot past Tim Howard. Twenty minutes remained, but the tie was over.

It was a high-class goal, but it was Chelsea's expertise at the basics that earned them their date with Tottenham in the final. Functional football will never be an art form, but it is highly useful. Chelsea performed with a machine-like efficiency that rarely endears them to neutrals, but produces results.

It was an object lesson in Jose Mourinho-style football. The Portuguese appeared an expert at instilling a siege mentality, and it survived his departure. It was another win where, though Grant picked the team, the tactics appeared to be devised in 2004 by his predecessor.

It makes Chelsea easier to admire than adore, but also thoroughly resilient. Deprived of eight major players, and with the benched Ashley Cole another significant absentee for 89 minutes, they were depleted but not defeated.

Indeed, the remnants of the squad were in greater danger of being deafened than beaten. The Goodison roar was remarkable, but the Everton performance was not. Their supporters were raucous, but their performance was timid.

Indeed, apart from a Joleon Lescott header that Tim Cahill almost diverted in, it took the best part of an hour for Everton to seriously threaten. Then two of Mikel Arteta's cleverer set pieces came within a minute, when first Phil Neville had a shot parried and then Phil Jagielka applied a flick to Leon Osman's effort, with Petr Cech again frustrating Everton.

Chelsea had been the more dangerous even before Cole's goal. A Nicolas Anelka shot had flicked off Phil Jagielka and on to Howard's bar. It was indicative of Anelka's ability to flourish when alone in attack. At times, he operated in isolation yet, like Didier Drogba, he possesses the attributes to successfully do that.

The comparison with Andrew Johnson, another lone striker, suggested the mercurial Anelka will prove £15 million well spent. He has not won a trophy in England since Arsenal did the double in 1998, but that could change next month.

'You need to respect what Chelsea did in the last three months in all the competitions, with all the problems. We did it in a very good way,' said Grant, vindicated by reaching a first final.

'You need to take seriously what I say. Two months ago, I said we had a good squad. Of course, I didn't imagine we would have so many absences. I don't remember seeing so many players missing, and such good players.'

Shorn of arguably Grant's four preferred options in Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack, their midfield could have been damned as the marginalised, the makeshift and the mediocre respectively.

Yet Claude Makelele, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Steve Sidwell operated with discipline and an understanding of the task at hand. The Frenchman was especially effective. While Cahill remained an aerial menace, the usually irrepressible Australian had a constant companion in open play.

'I thought Makelele was fantastic tonight,' said David Moyes. 'I think we played well in periods of the game. It was a brilliant effort by the players but we need to find that bit that gets you to cup finals, or wins you cup finals or gets you into the top four. We need to find that special ingredient.'

In Cole. Chelsea had it. An evening that suggested the gulf between the big four – or three of them, anyway – and the rest is not closing and may be widening. Everton may occupy the final Champions League position, but in other respects, they are separated from Chelsea by more than one place.

'Don't be kidded that those managers prioritise,' insisted Moyes. 'All those clubs need to win a trophy every year. Hopefully we'll find that bit of magic that will take us into the echelons of winning things.'

It is just eight months since Chelsea won the FA Cup, but 13 years since Everton's last silverware. 'We want the wait to be less,' added Moyes. But it goes on, and on.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ricardo Carvalho
Chelsea defended well as a team, but Carvalho was magnificent. The Portuguese seemed to have an uncanny ability to position himself on the end of every cross. Chelsea's most important player?

EVERTON VERDICT: Lescott produced a couple of magnificent tackles to thwart Chelsea, but too many of their supposed match-winners failed to deliver. Cahill and Andrew Johnson, in particular, failed to make headway. Of all the players absent in Africa, Yakubu was missed the most.

CHELSEA VERDICT: They performed with the assurance of a side accustomed to the big occasion. Lescott's injury-time own goal in the first leg at Stamford Bridge meant they had no need to be attacking and Cech, Carvalho, Makelele and co. thrived on the Everton pressure.

BOOK HIM: Referee Steve Bennett has forged a reputation as a disciplinarian, yet when Shaun Wright-Phillips went flying in an off-the-ball incident, there wasn't a card in sight. The culprit, albeit inadvertently, was Mr Bennett, to the delight of the Everton crowd.


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