TEN-MAN Stoke City overcame reigning Capital One Cup champions Chelsea in dramatic fashion on Tuesday evening to secure a spot in the Quarter-Finals of the competition for the second time in three years.
Mark Hughes’ side produced heroics of epic proportions to overcome the West Londoners, who were fortunate to take the game to penalties after Loic Remy rifled home a last gasp equaliser following Jonathan Walters’ stunning second half opener.
Remy’s close range strike deep into stoppage swung the momentum back into Chelsea’s favour and it took another mammoth boost when Phil Bardsley was shown his second yellow card of the evening moments later to give the visitors a one man advantage.
However, the Potters dug in deep and managed to keep the desperate Blues at bay for an additional 30 minutes with skipper Ryan Shawcross a colossal figure on his return to the first team fold after Mark Hughes opted to welcome him back into the eleven before kick-off.
The drama of penalties always provides one hero, but the home supporters had six to toast as Charlie Adam, Peter Odemwingie, Xherdan Shaqiri, Marc Wilson and Marko Arnautovic finished with real aplomb from the spot before Jack Butland produced an outstanding fingertip save to thwart Eden Hazard to seal the victory for his side.
There is no doubt about, Chelsea are in times of adversity and Jose Mourinho is under pressure, but still, the Blues supporters chanted his name in unison throughout the game as they looked to spur their side on to victory.
To their credit, despite their disappointing start to the season, they started the game brightly – dictating the tempo of the game and displaying composure and patience on the ball as they moved up the field at leisure.
Stoke, on the back of a disappointing 2-0 home defeat three days earlier, looked to be suffering the effects of that result during the initial exchanges of the pulsating encounter.
It was always going to be crucial to keep the visitors at bay early on and they managed to do that, with a mixture of good defending and a hint of luck.
Butland did well to deny both Hazard and Brazilian international Willian from distance in the fourth and fifth minutes of the game, before producing a key save to thwart Diego Costa from close range shortly after.
Shawcross, who received a rapturous applause when the announce read out his name prior to kick-off, was straight into the thick of the action – tussling and tangling with the powerful and lively Diego Costa.
The City skipper won the first battle by denying the Spanish striker a clear sight at goal with a crucial intervention before the pair collided as they rose to challenge a long John Terry punt forward.
Costa came out on top the next time they came head-to-head, inside the penalty area, as he manoeuvred space on the left, clipped the ball across the 6-yard box and turned in celebration as he anticipated Willian tapping home, only for Glenn Whelan to make a remarkable clearance off the line.
The pressure was building and the visitors sensed a goal, and truth be told that should have come when Ramires burst forward, skipped past Butland and then hit the side-netting when it appeared far easier to have found the back of the net.
For all of their early dominance it was the home side who very nearly opened the evening’s scoring when Marc Muniesa attempted an audacious acrobatic effort which deflected off Kurt Zouma before dropping agonisingly over the bar.
That near miss lifted everybody inside the stadium and all of a sudden there was wind of change as Hughes’ side began to dominant and pressurise the reigning league and Capital One Cup champions.
Adam, ever the opportunist, lashed a couple of efforts wide of target from distance as the hosts began to turn the screw into the Blues, whilst Bardsley, who was enjoying a fine outing, fired harmlessly wide when he had time and space 25-yards out.
As the half drew towards its conclusion some intricate football culminated in Mame Diouf squaring to Walters, he turned and fired at goal only for Asmir Begovic to smother the Irishman’s strike and deny him what seemed a certain goal.
Chelsea needed to start the second half at a far higher tempo than they ended the first and you can be certain that was the message being drummed into his players by Mourinho inside the visiting dressing room during the interval.
Surprisingly, they were slow out of the blocks and that had devastating consequences as the Potters pressed forward and took the lead through Walters, who hammed a thumping half volley beyond Begovic and into the back of the net via the crossbar.
The roar that echoes around the stadium at that point was on par with any other in recent history. The dream was alive and the home supporters knew it. Chelsea were rocking.
Mourinho made immediate changes as he withdrew the largely ineffective Baba Rahman and Ramires – adding the more creative Brazilian youngster Kenedy and Bertrand Traore, both of whom had pace to burn.
The visitors were knocking at the door and asking questions of the City rearguard but they had all the answers to those, with Shawcross and Philipp Wollscheid commanding their area with Marc Wilson also looking incredibly assured after replacing Muniesa.
Butland was alert to block Hazard’s effort from an acute angle as Mourinho’s men upped the ante midway through the half, before he finger-tipped Terry’s close range effort around the post to preserve his side’s advantage.
At the other end Arnautovic was wreaking havoc, and he was twice denied clear goalscoring opportunities by the referee, who harshly pulled play back for apparent infringements by the Austrian ace.
The home side were always a threat on the break and ten minutes from time the tie could have been put to bed. Walters broke free down the right, cut inside of Terry and curled another tremendous effort inches over the bar.
Chelsea pegged the Potters back as the fourth official indicated four minutes of additional time, and just 60 seconds into that the tie was back on level pegging as a corner found its way to Remy at the back post and he fired over Butland and into the roof of the net.
You could sense the disappointment and heartache inside the stadium as the Blues celebrated their undeserved leveller, and then just 30 seconds later when Bardsley was shown red for a trip on Kenedy you did have to fear the worst.
City responded and the outstanding Glenn Whelan and Adam chased every cause and pressed forward at every opportunity. Diouf, clearly struggling, teamed up with substitute Shaqiri to deputise for Bardsley at right back. Both were tremendous.
Against the odds, the ten-men managed to keep the scoreline level and take the tie to penalties, where they finally overcame the Londoners, in the most dramatic fashion, and secure a spot in Wednesday evening’s Quarter-Final draw.