In a season of wins came another. Chelsea are through to the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup, but what a slog.
It required penalties, and before that a cracker of a battle that no-one really expected. The managers had made 15 changes between them, so go figure?
And yet what a fight. It finished 1-1. First it went Chelsea’s way through Kai Havertz, and then it swung to Southampton, level through Che Adams, before the carnage of an undulating second half.
Kepa Arrizabalga was Chelsea’s penalty shootout hero once again as Chelsea edged past Southampton on spot kicks
Chelsea’s back-up goalkeeper stopped Theo Walcott’s penalty as the Blues picked up another Carabao Cup spot kick win
At that point, it was set fair for Fraser Forster to be the hero. He was a wall. Forget the penalties a moment, because it was his contribution in the 90 minutes that belongs in the light. Save followed save, particularly in the second half, most notably in saves from Kai Havertz and Saul. There were as many as seven others.
A stand-in for an understrength side, sure. A standout, most certainly.
But then to the kicks. Theo Walcott missed the second for Southampton, and Mason Mount botched the corresponding effort for Chelsea. All square at that point. But Will Smallbone then skied the fourth for the visitors and with Chelsea’s fifth Reece James nailed the win.
They will chase bigger prizes this season. They always do. But for now, they keep on winning, ugly or otherwise.
Will Smallbone (right) was the unfortunate Southampton player to blaze over to hand Chelsea the shootout advantage
Reece James hit in the winning penalty to seal the shootout victory and earn Chelsea a spot in the Carabao Cup last eight
There are far bigger pictures for both managers, obviously. For Hasenhuttl it concerns the proximity to the Premier League’s bottom three, so he made nine changes to the side held to a draw by Burnley at the weekend. Only Mohammed Salisu and Ibrahima Diallo were retained in an XI that also saw a full-back, Yan Valery, repurposed as a centre-half.
Tuchel was more reserved with six changes and a moderately strong team. A reflection of Chelsea having gone out at this stage in four of the previous six seasons? It felt that way.
Of Tuchel’s survivors, there was another start for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who made a strong contribution to the walloping of Norwich, albeit in a less-favoured role on the right this time, and among the incoming was Ross Barkley, given his first start of the season. There was also a spot for Saul Niguez, making only his fourth appearance since coming in on loan from Atletico Madrid.
Thomas Tuchel made six changes from the Chelsea side who beat Norwich 7-0, including a rare start for Saul Niguez (right)
He has had a ropey couple of months at Stamford Bridge, and while it is hardly the sort of midfield that would be easily gatecrashed by anyone, no-one expected a Spain international to find it quite so hard. At the very least he started this game well. His first handful of touches enabled some quick play through the middle and after six minutes he forced a fine save from Fraser Forster with a header. From there, he faded and the mystery continues.
Havertz, searching for that momentum-shifting spark of his own, also came close with a drive that bent fractionally wide, before a second was saved by Forster. The third chance, a minute before half-time, made it through. Hakim Ziyech assisted with an outswinging corner and Havertz headed his third goal of the campaign.
Southampton, for what they were worth, had been decent without being overly effective. Of the opening half, the best they could manage was a semi-threatening shot from Stuart Armstrong that deflected favourably for Kepa in Chelsea’s goal. Beyond that, they had generated no sense of danger whatsoever.
In the 90 minutes, Chelsea took the lead just before half-time when Kai Havertz headed the Blues in front at Stamford Bridge
Che Adams levelled the cup tie for Southampton when he tapped home from close range from just a few yards out
To the second half and a response from Southampton that was rapid. In one of the very first passages of play, Kyle Walker-Peters broke and shot for goal, drawing a save from Kepa. Adams stabbed in the rebound and the game was level.
Adam Armstrong went close in the frenzy that followed, with Havertz, Reece James, Barkley and Marcos Alonso all having chances in the opposite direction for Chelsea. The Carabao Cup was suddenly looking quite attractive.
Both managers chased the win – Hasenhuttl threw on Theo Walcott and Shane Long; Tuchel brought Mason Mount and Chilwell off his bench. Barkley was among those hooked, having failed to make any great use of the opportunity.
On 72 minutes, Saul was given an opening on the edge of Southampton’s area but pulled wide, and then had another go from similar range, which Forster tipped over. The goalkeeper was clearly the game’s standout player.
Will Smallbone almost snatched it for Southampton with a header a moment later, before Alonso fluffed one at the other end. With each miss, penalties were looking like an inevitability.