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April 16, 2007 3:00 am
Chelsea's capacity for winning games in which they do not obviously have the initiative continues to astound after this 2-1 victory, secured after extra-time. The scores stood at 1-1 after the normal 90 minutes.
It would be unfair to say they did not deserve to reach the FA Cup final because, for about an hour of Sunday's semi-final against Blackburn, they were much the better side. As Blackburn equalised and continued to pound them, though, they found the momentum against them but, once again, were to divert the tide and find a winner.
It was Michael Ballack who got it with 11 minutes of extra-time remaining, driving in after Saloman Kalou's effort had been blocked by the immense Christopher Samba. Yet for much of the game, it had seemed unthinkable that they would ever be in need of a late winner pilfered from a loose ball.
Until the 42nd minute, Chelsea had been cruising. They led 1-0, Frank Lampard having lifted Ballack's through-ball over Brad Friedel after 16 minutes, and seemed to be containing Blackburn with ease. But then Petr Cech was called on to beat away a David Dunn drive, Samba headed the resulting corner just over, and Rovers began to believe.
Jason Roberts, his physical presence a constant irritation for Chelsea, finally touched in the equaliser from a Morten Gamst Pedersen free-kick in the 67th minute. Blackburn's two wingers, Pedersen and David Bentley, were both excellent, and it is surely only a matter of time before the latter is called up by England.
Twice Bentley found Pedersen unmarked at the back post with precise crosses: the first time, Cech made a superb save; the Norwegian guided the second a fraction wide.
From an uninspiring first half sprang a gem. Ballack curled a free-kick just the wrong side of the post, and both goalkeepers made astonishing saves in injury-time: Cech arching backwards to flip away an inadvertent back-header from John Terry, and Friedel parrying a Ballack header.
Pulsating and enthralling, but Chelsea will think they should have had it sewn up before the Blackburn fightback began. But for the continuing travails of Andriy Shevchenko, they probably would have done.
There is something almost morbid about watching the greatest European striker of the past decade so reduced.
Most obviously, there was his air-shot when Didier Drogba squared the ball past Friedel for him two minutes after the break but just as distressing was the way he shied away from Ryan Nelsen as Drogba gave him an opening midway through the first half. The ball was on his right foot; all he had to do was withstand the challenge from the New Zealander and he had a clear shooting chance. As it was, he half-turned away and the ball dribbled pathetically through his legs.
For all that, Chelsea have an unprecedented quadruple in their sights, and the second of a possible three showdowns with Manchester United is confirmed. A Champions League final between the two in Athens remains to be decided but, 10 days after a league encounter on May 9, they will meet again in the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley.
Familiarity may by then have begun to breed stalemate but intrigue is assured.
*Charlton suffered a blow in their Premiership relegation battle when they lost 2-1 at Everton through a James McFadden goal scored four minutes into injury time.
Tottenham came from behind three times to draw 3-3 at Wigan. The result means Wigan are three points above the drop zone but have played a game more than most of their relegation rivals.
*Hibernian and Dunfermline drew 0-0 in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park and will play again on April 24 to decide who faces Celtic in the final.
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