Kepa’s latest penalty save sees Chelsea survive giant-slaying threat to beat Plymouth in the FA Cup

A day that was worth so much to Plymouth Argyle that it almost became priceless.

It is still to their credit, and to the hapless but ruthless Ryan Hardie, that the European champions depended on their £71m goalkeeper’s penalty-stopping ability to prevent this classic fourth-round tie from ending in a penalty shootout. .

Kepa Arrizabalaga saved Hardie’s penalty in the 117th minute of play, at a time when he looked like the only Chelsea player holding his head, to almost keep the score at 2-1.

It could have been a lot worse, it could have been a lot better. Chelsea had over 40 shots in this match, and still needed Kai Havertz, another £60m+ signing, best known for scoring the winning goal in the greatest game in club football, seizing the opportunity in the 105th minute for Marcos Alonso to win it…almost.

Thomas Tuchel, watching at home after testing positive for Covid, still had a lot to endure.

Plymouth continued to besiege Chelsea’s goal from then on, and the crestfallen reaction of the players at the final whistle said it all. His defiant and deafening fans said even more.

They were proud of their players as they put on a superb performance and one of the great cup ties. If the references to money squeak these days, it only goes to show why there is so much excitement; why victory would mean so much. The screen was so close to meaning everything.

All that was missing was an upset, as Chelsea missed opportunity after opportunity.

That it has come this far is to the credit of Plymouth, who were so close to one of the cup stories.

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There were still little stories within that.

Jordan Houghton spent 11 years at Chelsea as an academy graduate but never set foot on the Stamford Bridge pitch for a senior appearance. Now here he was, standing on a free kick yards from the Chelsea goal as Plymouth felt the thrill of the opportunity. Argyle had started the game well, and probably the better team. They soon got the better of the scoreboard.

Houghton made his free throw, which had a good chance of going straight. Macauley Gillesphey got a touch to make sure.

He made 6,000 fans euphoric behind the opposing goal. Archer Mike Cooper instinctively turned to greet them, moving a little closer.

It was at that end that the game quickly began to take on the feel of one of those days. The early-stage swing that Plymouth had shadowed soon turned into one-way football.

Or rather, Chelsea has just moved out of Cooper’s box. The ball went anywhere but inside. He hit the goal frame three times before the break. Mateo Kovacic hit the crossbar from a climb, and Callum Hudson-Odoi did the same moments later with a header. The entire Plymouth team realized they had to fill the gap, but that only led to Kovacic hitting the ball from distance, only to hit the post again.

Malang Sarr had to be on the alert to cut off a Plymouth counter-attack in the midst of all this, but Chelsea were mostly looking for that opening. They needed something different. They got something very different, perhaps even unique, certainly in César Azpilicueta’s career.

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In the 41st minute, with Chelsea increasingly exploiting that space down Plymouth’s right side, the right-back burst into the area. Mason Mount saw the run and slid the ball, allowing Azpilicueta to deftly throw the ball past him.

(AFP via Getty Images)

He used to be known as the “Lee Sharpe against Barcelona” before it became so widespread that several players offered their own twists, including Gianfranco Zola at this stadium in this competition, and it seemed that the goalscorer himself took a liking to him.

He accomplished the same thing early in the second half, but this time it was denied by the linesman’s flag.

That came in the midst of an even more intense game from Chelsea, as if the draw had at least relieved them of the anxiety of the prospect of such a humiliating defeat.

However, it still stayed live because the game stayed live. They just couldn’t put the ball in the net. There were too many Plymouth bodies in the way and when they finally got through with a hit from Mount, Cooper did superbly to get him over the bar.

You could say all of this was one more illustration that Romelu Lukaku still doesn’t quite fit in with this Chelsea team, but this was a League One team.

The European champions, let’s not forget, finally brought in Havertz, albeit for Hudson-Odoi. It was no coincidence that he was involved in the game opportunity or that it was because Plymouth finally had an attack again. This was the danger. From his first foray forward in the second half, Kepa Arrizabalaga let go of Havertz, who attacked the goal. It looked like the simplest one-on-one ending only Plymouth captain Joe Edwards appeared out of nowhere and blocked brilliantly.

That, if you want to get a little whimsical about it, is what the mug should be about. It was also a chance that didn’t add up to the 40-plus shots Chelsea had. The same thing happened with Timo Werner moments later.

When Lukaku put the German ahead just before the late 90s, the striker would have had another clean run to goal had he used his abundant pace to pass the ball past a League One defender. Instead, the German seemed to drop back in the moment, when James Wilson tackled the ball out of play.

In general, though, cunning and commitment will only get you so far. The thing about higher technical quality is that it pushes you to your limits, it stretches you.

That was how his £71m Champions League winner found space on the left, Havertz squaring for Alonso to slide the ball inside.

And yet the day was not over yet, any more than Plymouth was. They refused to accept the situation or the gap, surrounding the Chelsea goal.

Such was the pressure that Sarr played a back pass directly to Hardie, eventually panicking about taking him down.

Hardie himself stepped forward.

He was denied a priceless moment by a goalkeeper valued at £71m.

There is no shame in that. There should only be pride.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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