Chelsea entered this season’s football league cup in the second round for the first time in twenty years, and hosted a team they hadn’t met for 35 years, Bristol Rovers.
Antonio Conte, took charge of his first English league cup game, and showed his intentions to progress in the competition by fielding a strong line up, all be it with changes from our previous fixture. Begovic started in goal, with Ola Aina making his competitive first team debut at left back, as Azpilicueta switched to the right side. Terry started on the bench, with Ivanovic partnering Gary Cahill at centre back.
Fabregas returned to the starting line up with Matic, Loftus Cheek was used upfront, as he had been in pre-season. Batshuayi started after impressing form the bench against Watford, likewise Victor Moses. Pedro started on the left wing, with Hazard, Costa, Chalobah, Oscar, Solanke and Courtois joining Terry as substitutes.
The first half was one-way traffic, attack versus defence. Chelsea were moving the ball around with confidence, and it was a pleasure to watch Fabregas stroking the ball around the Stamford Bridge pitch. From his deep midfield role he was constantly getting on the ball, and a cautious rovers midfield were reluctant to press up on him and leave space behind. This allowed him the time to pick out passes, which were cutting the opposition apart. On several occasions exquisite balls were pinged forward to create chances, one putting Batshuayi clear over the top, Mildenhall saving in the Bristol Rovers goal. Another split the centre back and full back to find Azpilicueta down the right, and a third left Pedro one v one against their right back, who he beat and whipped an effort narrowly over the far corner. Fabregas was also finding Batshuayi with ease along the floor as he dropped off his marker. This was the main narrative of the first half, as Chelsea played through Bristol Rovers with ease. A case in point was a ball from Fabregas on halfway to Loftus Cheek, who with his back to goal, turned the ball round the corner first time to put Batshuayi through, his left foot effort was pulled wide of the far post. Loftus Cheek was pretty much a second striker, playing just off, and for most of the first half, in advance of Batshuayi. The pair linked up well on occasions, this chance being an example of that.
In truth Chelsea should have been out of sight by half time. Mildenhall made countless saves, although it has to be said a lot of them were routine. The best chance to break the deadlock came after Fabregas found Loftus Cheek who broke clear of the midfield, side stepped a centre back and fired against the foot of the far post. Chelsea were dominating but not taking advantage. Moses was again impressive, his direct running causing the rovers defence no end of trouble, and his link play was also decent.
As the half hour mark approached, it was beginning to look like it could be a frustrating evening, but then the break through arrived. Smart play around the edge of the area found Matic in the box, his pass deflected to Batshuayi who turned and fired high into the roof of the net.
Two minutes later it was 2-0, and Chelsea now looked like they may run away with it as reward for their continued persistence was paying off. Comfortable possession in the oppositions half led to Fabregas again playing a decisive pass, this time wide to Pedro on the left, whose cross looked over hit, but Azpilicueta hadn’t given up on it and got round the back to turn it back across goal where Moses was on hand to slide it in.
The score line was beginning to reflect how comfortable it had been so far.
Credit to Bristol Rovers, they continued to try to play out of defence when they could, rather than just going long. Most occasions it was broken up in midfield, but one attack down the right yielded a free kick, from which, with their first shot of the match, a powerful header from Peter Hartley pulled one back for the visitors.
Shortly after the two goal cushion was restored though. Batshuayi turned Moses run and cross from the right home for his second of the night. He was always available in the box, and had now notched three in two matches.
Whether Chelsea thought the win was already in the bag, or a dogged determination as well as some tighter defending from Bristol Rovers made the difference in the second half is dependant on opinion. The reality is probably that it was a bit of both, combined with the shift in momentum as a result of a badly timed (from our point of view) error to pull them back in the match.
Aina had been having a good debut for Chelsea, available down the left, (not his preferred side) and solid, if for the main, untroubled defensively. He was unfortunate to make a costly error early in the second half though. He came across centrally beating Sinclair to a ball in the air, but after doing so, turned back into trouble as he chested the ball sideways. Sinclair was put through clear of our advanced defence, and only haltered by Pedro, who it has to be said, had put in an excellent effort to sprint back and attempt to deny the chance. He appeared to be our last line of defence in front of Begovic as he attempted to get his body across Sinclair, and it was a surprise that he was only awarded a yellow. With hindsight, had it been red we may well be out of this competition now, judging on the second half performance we put in. Harrison tucked away the penalty, and it was back to a single goal margin. Buoyed by this, Bristol Rovers began to win back possession in a manor they were unable to do in the first half. Second balls were now falling to them, and Chelsea attacks lacked the incisiveness and tempo that they did in the first half. Fabregas was unable to find Batshuayi through the middle as easily as he had done before, and when he did, Michy was unable to keep it. Bristol Rovers pressed slightly more, and closed the lines better.
Another counter attack saw a great recovery tackle from Aina to prevent a shot, but the ball fell to Harrison on the edge of the area, his powerful first time effort clipped the top of the bar. This now looked like it could go either way. A Stuart Sinclair effort went just over as he broke from midfield, now he and Chris Lines in the centre were coming away with the ball much more than before. Begovic did well to tip over an Easter effort, while at the other end Chelsea looked less threatening than previously. Now going side to side in possession as Bristol Rovers sat in.
Aina had to be replaced after picking up what looked like a thigh strain. Terry came on, as the 4-4-2 shape remained, Ivanovic going to right back and Azpilicueta to left back. Hazard and Oscar were also introduced, but unlike on Saturday, Conte’s changes didn’t make the desired impact. Chelsea held on though, controlling possession more in the last ten, and we await the third round draw. Credit to Bristol Rovers for a spirited effort.
A lot of pluses from the first half, both in terms of team and individual play. Moses and Fabregas both impressive after starting this time, Aina with a good debut, Batshuayi netting two more and Loftus Cheek showing he can link well with him upfront.
Chelsea 3 (4-4-2)
Begovic; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic ©, Aina, (Terry 78);
Moses, Fabregas, Matic, Pedro, (Hazard 75);
Batshuayi, Loftus Cheek (Oscar 82)
Goals; Batshuayi 29, 41, Moses 31.
Bristol Rovers 2 (4-5-1)
Mildenhall; Leadbitter, Lockyer, ©, Hartley, Brown;
Sinclair, Clarke, Bodin, (Easter 45), Lines, James, (Taylor 45);
Harrison, (Gaffney 66)
Goals; Hartley 34, Harrison 49.
Contribution from Michael Martin