If ever a game had ‘banana skin’ written all over it, this was the one. Pilloried by the press if we lost, yet hardly a murmur if we won, this was a no-win situation. The presence of Sky, sniffing around for a bit of giant-killing glory, made the game an even more daunting proposition, especially when one considers Chelsea’s history. Was it only a decade ago that Ken Monkou
hit a thirty-five yarder own goal against Scarbrough?

Yet again the Bridge was 12,000 short of capacity. This was a reflection on the fading powers of this once great cup competition, but disappointing nonetheless, especially as Arsenal attracted a full house against Gillingham. Surely it is time for the FA to grant a Champions League place to the trophy winners in order to bring back the crowds.

On a pitch that looked more like Farmer Giles’ grazing paddock, Chelsea kicked off attacking the Shed end. With the Preston fans taking the whole of the bottom tier of the east stand and creating a stirring atmosphere, the first quarter of an hour was highlighted by the stadium announcer broadcasting a missing persons alert for eleven men in Blue shirts. With a changed line up yet again, the Chelsea players looked lost, and with Preston playing a swift counter-attacking
game we should have been 2-0 down on the quarter-hour mark.

As it was, we were 1-0 down on ten minutes. Yet again a simple set play saw a cross ping over our defence to land on a striker’s head — a carbon copy of a goal conceded countless times recently. With the home programme and the latest edition of Onside harking on about our lack of concentration at set pieces, it would seem that our players just do not quite get the hint. However, to be fair to the boys, Ranieri’s insistence on playing Petit at centre back and Le Saux at right back could hardly be called ‘rational’. Indeed, the sight of Stanic (yes, Stanic) at centre back for the last twenty minutes had the men in white coats banging on the side of Ranieri’s dugout.

Okay, so we were without the services of Terry, Gallas and Melchiot. After the hefty programme of games (nine in January alone), the injury count is no surprise. But to put Le Saux at right back beggars belief. To Ranieri’s credit, this change was an early tactical switch within the first fifteen minutes. But to the aforementioned plonker’s discredit, what was wrong with playing Ferrer
from the off? Answers on a postcard please. Poor Albert — a world class player whose manager would prefer to pick the tea lady rather than our Catalan hero.

Within fourteen minutes we should have been dead and buried. A simple ball down the right flank cut through our defence and the resulting cross evaded every Chelsea defender only to fall to the feet of a yellow shirt on the edge of the six yard box. Somehow, and that is not a lightly used phrase, Cudicini pulled off a world class save.

This let off appeared to galvanise our players. Within fifty seconds we were level when a thrusting counter attack down the left from Jimmy ended with a cross to Eidur who had a simple tap in. If nothing else it shut up the stupid muppets from Greater Manchester who by now had become more tiresome than a Chelsea Village mailshot.

Within two more minutes we were in front. A pass to Eidur on the edge of the box saw our Iceman play a precise one-two with Jimmy who despatched the ball into the left corner of the net. A simple, beautifully crafted goal finished by a trademark Jimmy excocet (the goalie saw, he watched, he picked the ball out of the net). The rest of the half was even. If anything, Preston finished stronger.

Most Blues fans entered the half time bars dreading the watered down pints as well as the onset of the second half. With the Blues attacking the Matthew Harding Stand, one could have expected a more attacking display. However, one would have been disappointed — very. On a pitch that grew more like an advert for female mud wrestling by the minute, Preston grew in confidence as they pressed for an equaliser. With the Blues looking jaded and unused to Claudio’s unorthodox line up, the writing was on the wall — an equaliser would have killed us.

As the half wore on, our lack of pace and width grew. Minus Zenden and the eternally missing Gronk, we were clueless and kept trying to play through the middle with ten yellow shirts in front of us. I have seen more chances on a lottery scratchcard. As time progressed the Preston fans raised the volume. With the home support responding in kind, the match was becoming one of those end-to-end cup ties that usually end in tears.

But not this time. In the ninety-first minute, Forssell (who had replaced Eidur) latched onto a hoofed ball. With neat control he advanced on the penalty area before evading two tackles and curling the ball into the net. Cue programmes in the air, frantic text messaging and a big fat dose of grade A relief. Next stop Tottenham. This time, it bloody well is personal.