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Feb 19, 2011

Neville's cool wins a classic FA Cup tie

The cynics who have condemned the FA Cup as running out of oxygen should have made their way to Stamford Bridge for a fourth-round replay that breathed fresh life back into this competition in the grand manner. On an afternoon of high drama in the West London rain, Everton's heroic battlers condemned Chelsea to their latest penalty defeat, but such a diluted summation doesn't begin to tell the full story of a tie that overflowed with incident until Phil Neville delivered the final decisive penalty kick of a topsy-turvy shootout.

Controversy was mixed with brilliance as this delayed replay swung one way and then the other in the opening 90 minutes of action, with Everton 'keeper Tim Howard keeping his side in a contest that could so easily have drifted away from them as Chelsea created chance after chance to emerge from a slumber that seems to be increasingly terminal.

Then, just as their spirit appeared to have been broken by Frank Lampard's 104th-minute opener, Everton found the will to continue their fight and after Leighton Baines produced a stunning last-gasp free-kick to send this tie into a shootout, they duly held their nerve to carry off the prize of a place in the fifth round.

Everton boss David Moyes could barely contain his joy as he leapt into the press room a matter of seconds after the final whistle and asked for a drop of alcohol to calm his nerves, before he delivered this fitting eulogy to his triumphant side after they ended Chelsea's two-year reign as FA Cup holders.

"That was the same team that performed so poorly for me at Bolton last weekend and yet in this game, they were fantastic from first minute to last," beamed the delighted Scot. "We got into Chelsea from the off and even though we had a ride our luck at times, my team deserved a penalty shootout at the very least and I was confident that the victory would be ours as Phil Neville stepped up to take that last kick.

"Phil's experience and composure was just what we needed in a moment of high tension and that's why I was determined to make sure he was taking our fifth penalty. He did his job fantastically well and we should celebrate this moment.

"To knock out a top class Chelsea side that have not lost in this competition for the best part of three years is a fantastic achievement and to do it at Stamford Bridge makes it all the more sweet. After this, anything is possible for Everton in the FA Cup this season."

Moyes's unbridled joy was contrasted by an ashen-faced Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti, who defended his decision to hand much-maligned defender Cole the task of taking the fifth penalty when the pressure was at its height.

"We practiced penalties on the training ground and Ashley was one of the best, so I have no regrets with my decision to give him this task," stated under-fire Ancelotti. "I feel we deserved to win this game as we created so many chances to finish Everton off with time to spare and I felt that the victory was there once Lampard had scored. In the end, they needed a free-kick to give them hope and in the penalties, anything can happen.

"Now we have a crucial period in our season as we have to recover in our next two games against FC Copenhagen and Manchester United. The pressure on me is no more now than it was before this result, but I know the next few weeks will be crucial to our hopes."

Chelsea have now lost seven of the last eight penalty shootouts they have taken part in, as a plot-line that has seen Ancelotti finding disaster around every corner over the last two or three months continued to throw up misery. On this occasion, the under-fire Chelsea boss didn't even have £50 million signing Fernando Torres to blame as his ineligibility for this competition meant he was little more than a spectator looking down on the carnage, but his problems did not disappear along with his out of sorts Spanish striker.

With Drogba returning to the starting line-up after his omission at Fulham on Monday, this was an opportunity for the striker, who would not have taken kindly to his demotion, to reclaim his throne and yet the opening 90 minutes of this FA Cup thriller provided example aplenty of Chelsea's increasing uncertainty in front of goal.

Lampard, Florent Malouda, Ramires and Salomon Kalou all had chances to kill off the Everton challenge in good time, yet the nerves that resonated around Stamford Bridge as extra-time loomed large confirmed that Ancelotti's players and those supporting them in the stands are now lacking the knowing belief that was once among their greatest qualities.

Every team of winners need arrogance to go with their brilliance and Chelsea used to exude that in abundance, yet three months of consistent setbacks have shaken this team to its core and Everton always gave a hint that they were ready to make the most of that uncertainty and dump the holders out of the competition.

The vocal visiting hordes behind Petr Cech's goal believed their moment had come as Marouane Fellaini appeared to snatch a winner in the final minute of normal time as he tapped in from close range, only for a linesman's flag to cut short their joy, and yet it merely proved to be a delay to their imminent celebrations. While Cole will be cast as the villain after his decisive penalty miss, Nicolas Anelka was equally culpable as he failed to take advantage of Baines missing the first spot-kick of the shootout by offering up a limp effort that gave Howard every chance to continue his heroics in the Everton goal.

Chelsea and Ancelotti's fate will be decided in their next two games against FC Copenhagen in the Champions League on Tuesday night and then Manchester United at Stamford Bridge next week, yet this was not a day to add further fuel to the fire that appears to be burning out of control in Ancelotti's dressing room. That task can be carried out when the apparently inevitable demise of their trophy ambitions is finally confirmed.

No, this was a day for Everton to bask in the spotlight and they deserved perhaps much more than a fifth-round date with Reading after this memorable performance. Maybe, just maybe, it will be the catalyst for Moyes and his troops to claim the ultimate prize at Wembley in May.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Tim Howard. The Everton 'keeper was in sparkling form as he kept out a Chelsea onslaught. He then backed up his brilliance with a save in the shootout from Nicolas Anelka.

SHRINKING REFEREE: Phil Dowd used to be famous for his portly physique, but he is half the man he used to be. A New Year diet has eaten into his trademark pot belly and he made a fine decision when he decided to book Ramires for diving when he tired to win a first-half penalty.

SHIRTLESS FOOL: A fan positioned in the front row of the Everton throngs may have believed he was showing his manliness by shedding his shirt on a chilling day in West London, but his glowing pink torso confirmed he was freezing himself half to death. He soon popped his tee-shirt back on, so maybe he is not quite the man he thought he was.

FINAL VERDICT: Chelsea's demise will capture plenty of headlines, but the biggest winners to emerge from this epic are Everton and the FA Cup itself. If this competition has lacked some sparkle of late, this tie saw that glitter reapplied.

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