Despite looking as unsure as the club’s future Chelsea book berth in last eight of FA Cup
Luton Town 2, Chelsea 3
There were moments when it felt like the world was caving in for the world champions with the news that Roman Abramovich is selling Chelsea, with the Carabao Cup Final lost on Sunday and with them heading out of the FA Cup.
It was a night that so almost belonged to Luton Town but it was Abramovich’s last big investment in Chelsea – record, £97.5m signing Romelu Lukaku who has struggled so much this season – who earned them a place in the quarter-finals as they twice came from behind. By the time they play that tie Abramovich may well be gone – an extraordinary turn of events in these extraordinary times – and Chelsea looked like a team that did not know what had hit them; on and off the pitch. They seemed as unsure as the club’s future.
The Russian billionaire was actually due to be at Kenilworth Road but Chelsea withdrew him from their guest list the day before. Instead chairman Bruce Buck and technical and performance adviser Petr Cech headed their delegation. Key director Marina Granovskaia, so close to Abramovich, was also nowhere to be seen.
What a contrast between the fortunes of these two clubs. Just eight years ago Luton were fighting for promotion to League Two, only four years ago they were battling to get into League One but now they are in the Championship play-off places.
Manager Nathan Jones said it would be an occasion to celebrate, even an occasion for caviar – Russian caviar presumably – and his team and their fans feasted on a roller-coaster of a raucous cup tie in which they gave Chelsea an almighty scare.
The bombshell sale announcement stoked the febrile atmosphere even more. The Chelsea chants of “Roman Abramovich” were met with boos from the Luton fans as everyone tried to digest the confirmation from the oligarch, made an hour before kick-off, that it was the end of an era.
“You’re get sold in the morning,” countered the Luton supporters which was a new take on the familiar “you’re getting sacked” refrain as they also replied to songs of “we’ve won it all” with “you bought it all”.
Chelsea looked pre-occupied and they barely touched the ball, apart from to put it out for a corner, before Luton struck. It was from that corner, taken by Luke Berry, that Reece Burke rose, away from Malang Sarr and glanced a header across goal that kissed off the far post and into the net. Less than two minutes had been played and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, surprisingly stationed in the middle of the back-three, looked stunned.
Chelsea were rocked and Luton tore into them but there was a setback when goalkeeper Jed Steer ran from goal to collect a long ball forward only to crumple in a heap. He was taken off on a stretcher with Kepa Arrizabalaga walking over to try and console the distraught fellow goalkeeper.
Luton threatened again. Chelsea continued to appear nervous with Arrizabalaga arguing with Sarr as the ball ran out for another corner and then Dan Potts planting a header straight into the goalkeeper’s hands. He held his head.
Luton were collectively doing that as they gifted Chelsea an equalising goal. It came as Gabe Osho lost possession and Timo Werner ran at the Luton defence with the ball eventually breaking to Saul Niguez who swept a first-time shot into the corner of the net for his first Chelsea goal.
Soon after and the Spaniard was sent clear only for Harry Isted to deflect his shot into the side-netting. If Luton’s third-choice goalkeeper did well there he excelled in turning away a powerful drive from Kenedy, remarkably making his first Chelsea start for four years, and then to get fingertips to a snap-shot from Lukaku as Chelsea pressed again.
But just as Luton appeared to be buckling they gloriously reclaimed the lead with Harry Cornick racing through onto Carlos Mendes Gomes’ first-time pass. Sarr tried to step up and play him onside but failed with Cornick, a Chelsea fan, calmly steering his shot around Arrizabalaga. So incensed was Thomas Tuchel that he ran over to remonstrate with the assistant referee and appeared to be booked.
He sent Chelsea out early for the second half and Luton knew they would be pushed back and re-doubled their efforts although there was a reprieve when Loftus-Cheek met a corner but could only head across goal. Soon Chelsea were claiming 75 per cent possession but struggled to create chances with passes and crosses over-hit to the glee of Luton’s increasingly believing supporters.
Chelsea looked anxious but, suddenly, they drew level with Timo Werner picked out by Loftus-Cheek inside the Luton penalty area as Burke misjudged the flight of the ball. Werner brought it down and poked it past Isted from eight yards out although the celebrations were minimal as Chelsea rushed to restart with Luton forced back even more.
Could they respond? Could they, more realistically, hold out for extra-time?
Instead it was Chelsea seizing the lead, for the first time, as Luton tired and it was Lukaku who claimed it as he slid in to meet Werner’s low cross. after he was picked out inside the area, at close-range and turn it past Isted. It had been coming.
Luton had given everything. They had pushed Chelsea all the way but could not respond while the only certainty for Tuchel’s side is that they are in the hat for the next round.
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