By Paul Lagan at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea 2 v Plymouth Argyle 1 (AET)
Marcos Alonso spared the blushes of Chelsea as he scored the winner deep into extra time as Chelsea came from behind to see off the excellent Plymouth Argyle 2-1 to scrape into the 5th round of the FA Cup by the narrowest of margins.
The League One outfit had a sensational late effort to make it 2-2 and take the game into the lottery of penalties but Kepa produced the save of the season to thwart striker Ryan Hardie from the penalty spot.
Argyle supporters had goaded their opponents throughout the game by chanting: “Champions of Europe, you’re having a laugh.”
It was a chant that was fully justified as well, as the Blues took until the last seconds of the first half of extra time to turn the match around.
Up until then, they were the better side, but the League One outfit were the better disciplined and took the lead on eight minutes.
It was a set piece that Chelsea looked surprised at. They remained motionless as Macaulay Gillesphey glanced a header into the back of the net.
Cesar Azpilicueta levelled minutes before half-time before Alonso stroked home a right-footer deep into extra time.
The drama continued with Argyle pushing for a equaliser and, but for that dramatic save to his left by Kepa from Hardie’s spot kick it would have gone to penalties.
Jorginho had the first effort on goal after two minutes, a speculative daisy-cutter from 20 yards.
It went well wide of Mike Cooper’s left upright.
But on eight minutes, and with their first attack Argyle scored.
A deep free kick from the left was met with deft glancing header by Gillesphey.
Chelsea tried to respond quickly and after good work by Callum Hudson-Odoi, the ball fell to Mateo Kovacic, who thumped the underside of the Argyle crossbar with a venomous right-footer.
Jorginho was given a yellow card for hauling down Luke Jephcott on 20 minutes.
Another zipper from Ziyech on 28 minutes took a slight deflection, but not enough to trouble Cooper who snaffled the ball into his chest.
Argyle rode their luck a minute later when Hudson-Odoi rattled the crossbar with a close-range header as the Blues applied greater pressure.
Azpilicueta forced Cooper into a fine, diving save to his left as the defender’s right -footer seemed destined for the left-hand side of Cooper’s goal. But he lunged to his left to parry away the drive.
The Blues smashed the woodwork again on 37 minutes, Kovacic crashing a right-footer off Cooper’s right post from just inside the Argyle penalty area.
The pressure finally told four minutes from he break.
Good work on the right saw Mason Mount send a low, byline drive into the six-yard box. Azpilicueta produced a clever angled back-heel that foxed Cooper, allowing the ball to nestle in the far corner of his net to level the score.
Stand-in head coach Arno Michels decided to replace Andreas Christensen for Marcos Alonso.
A lovely three-man move saw Ziyech pass the ball to in-running Rudiger, but the German was half a second to late to tap-home an easy far post effort. Romelu Lukaku tried to slip the ball past Cooper, as the Blues went for the goal, but again the stopper was equal to the task and blocked the shot.
Hudson-Odoi was sacrificed for Kai Havertz on 64 minutes.
Kepa had to be alert on 73 minutes when substitute Hardie broke free. He tried to nick the ball past the goalkeeper but the Spain international used his body well, to block the goal-bound close-range effort.
Straight up the other end and Cooper finger-tipped a blaster by Mount over the crossbar.
Timo Werner entered the fray at the expense of Kovacic with nine minutes left.
Werner had a great chance to win the match but seemingly stopped when a defender slid in to clear the ball after it was a one on one with him and Copper.
An injured Mount was replaced by Saul seven minutes into extra time.
Havertz had a clear shout for a penalty when he looked to be hauled back by Dan Scarr, but referee Simon Hooper decided against awarding anything.
But they finally broke the resistance of Argyle with a minute of the first half of extra time left. Alonso stroking home after some excellent set-up play.
VAR looked at it and decided there was no offside, and the Chelsea fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Argyle responded well and Kepa punched out a Ryan Broom blaster as the Blues looked tired and to an extent clinging onto their slender lead.
They brought on Trevoh Chalobah to add extra height in defence, Azpilicueta made way.
With four minutes left the visitors were sensationally awarded a penalty when Malang Sarr upended Ryan Hardie.
The substitute striker took the kick himself and Kepa made a stunning save to his left to grab the ball and kill off any lingering doubts.
The BLues travel out to the Middle East later tonight to play in the World Club Cup.
If they play anything like this they will be on the first plane home.
Chelsea, Kepa, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Sarr, Jorginho, Kovacic, Ziyech, Mount, Hudson-Odoi, Lukaku
Subs, Bettinelli, Sharman-Lowe, Alonso, Chalobah, Kenedy, Saul, Barkley, Havertz, Werner
Plymouth Argyle, Cooper, Wilson, Scarr, Gillesphey, Edwards, Grant, Mayor, Houghton, Camara, Jephcott, Garrick
Subs, Burton, Bolton, Broom, Hardie, Ennis, Lewis, Randell, Law, Craske
Referee, Simon Hooper