LONDON -- After 150 years, the FA Cup still finds itself with new stories to tell. Here was a magnificent fourth-round tie that lurched one way then the other, that simply would not stick to your preconceptions of how these games were supposed to end.
A 2-1 win for Chelsea over League One Plymouth means this is perhaps not one for the annals of this wonderful competition, but those who shivered through two hours of high drama at Stamford Bridge will never forget a match that resolutely refused to stick to the script.
As the Chelsea misses in the second half of normal time and early in extra time grew ever more preposterous, you could feel the inevitability of a Plymouth bolt from the blue, the classic tale of cup upset. Marcos Alonso seemed to have spoiled that but no matter, the visitors would rise again, winning a penalty with time running out. Surely they were about to take it to the shootout and win there? No. Kepa Arrizabalaga, once a laughing stock of a world's most expensive goalkeeper, denied Ryan Hardie a place in FA Cup history.
It was the cruelest of endings for Plymouth, a reminder that while this competition is adept at making dreams into reality, it is no less effective at crushing them in the most dramatic of fashions.
No one could content Chelsea did not dominate this contest but they never looked entirely at ease; certainly, it did not help them that the 6,000 visiting Plymouth fans made enough of a racket to convince that you were in Home Park, the rafters lifted off with chants of "everywhere they go Argyle are massive." Certainly, they looked like giants when they decamped on mass to attack the Blues box for an early free kick.
Jordan Houghton's delivery was right on the mark, giving his teammates a run on the ball that the Chelsea defense did not. Still, Romelu Lukaku could have done far more to keep Macaulay Gillesphey from getting such a clean head on the ball, his flick across goal flying past a dumbstruck Kepa.
His tame defensive effort set the tone for an equally meek display for Lukaku at the other end. He might certainly argue that Chelsea were not playing to his strengths, Jordan Houghton and Dan Scarr were going to be far harder to beat on the air than with the ball on the deck. Equally there comes a time when a striker of his renown ought to be able to find ways outside his comfort zone to impact a contest.
With Lukaku laboring, Chelsea found themselves in something of an infinite loop of the 92nd minute. Firmly parked on the edge of the Plymouth box, they spent most of the first half finding ever more imaginative ways to hit the frame of the goal. After a heavy touch by Lukaku Kovacic thumped an effort against the bar, Callum Hudson-Odoi flicked against the bar a cross by Hakim Ziyech, the most inventive of those tasked with breaking down the visitors wall.
Not that there was nothing to the Plymouth game beyond retreating to their 18-yard box and hoping. The pressure applied at the top of the pitch by Jordon Garrick and Luke Jephcott helped to gum up Chelsea attacks; by the time the ball reached the danger area, the Plymouth defensive lines were set. Meanwhile, if any team could complain of rough treatment and cynical fouls it was the Pilgrims, whose every counter attack seemed to draw them a free kick on halfway off a despairing Chelsea leg.
If they had held on until the interval, this tie might well have concluded in different fashion. Eventually, however, the Chelsea pressure told. Numbers piled up on the right flank before Mason Mount crossed low to the near post, a flick of Cesar Azpilicueta's trailing leg enough to finally beat Mike Cooper.
Further chances came and went into the second half, Azpilicueta denied a backheel brace by an offside flag, the outstanding Joe Edwards sprinting the length of the pitch to block substitute Kai Havertz when the hosts found empty space following a Plymouth corner. Cooper dived acrobatically to his right to push Mount's shot over the bar. As those chances flew by, so did the weight of tension build on Chelsea shoulders.
Plymouth for their part seemed liberated. They had already achieved far more than anyone could reasonably have expected against a team assembled at a cost of nearly half a billion dollars. They attacked the closing stages without fear, Ryan Hardie darting in behind but unable to quite clip the ball high enough to take it over Kepa. Steven Schumacher's side never looked quite like winning the game but equally they just about offered enough late on to ensure the pressure on Cooper's goal was not intolerable.
As extra time wore on, a neutral could not help but see another moment of FA Cup magic on the card. There was no evidence that Plymouth might score but isn't that precisely the point. You were expecting the bolt from the blue, the moment this tie would write itself into 150 years of history.
So this competition's capacity to surprise remains undimmed. Halftime in extra time was beckoning as Havertz darted down the left, cutting the ball back for fellow substitute Marcos Alonso to roll into the bottom of the net. Suddenly, the VAR graphic burst onto the Stamford Bridge screens. More grist for the narrative mill? Not today.
That was that then. Chelsea, the team who have mastered possession football as a defensive weapon under Thomas Tuchel, would throttle this contest in the final 15 minutes. Not in the slightest. Had the Blues head coach not been isolating due to a positive COVID-19 test, he would have been seething on the touchline when Malang Sarr bundled Hardie over after his fellow defenders had let Plymouth's No. 9 slip in behind. This was surely the moment this tie delivered. Kepa had other plans, though in truth he would have been extremely disappointed if he had conceded the spot kick once he had guessed the right way.
What might have been if the Chelsea goalkeeper had guessed wrong, if Hardie had struck the ball higher or further toward the corner? Perhaps a shootout win for Plymouth, a place in FA Cup history for Gillesphey, Schumacher and the rest of this wonderful team? This game may not live long in the collective memory of this competition but that would be a shame. There have been few games this season that delivered in such wonderful fashion.