TOWN’S magnificent fans enjoyed 15 minutes of FA Cup fun in the Stamford Bridge sun – then Chelsea flexed their muscles.
Inspired by England ace Frank Lampard, the quadruple chasers clinched an ultimately comfortable passage to the quarter-finals.
But Lampard, John Terry, John Mikel Obi and the rest didn’t have it all their own way as Andy Ritchie’s battlers stunned them with Michael Collins’ equaliser in first-half stoppage time, then got right in their faces in the opening phase of the second period.
It took Lampard’s second goal of the afternoon, and his 101st in Chelsea colours, to snuff out the rebellion and restore order.
And the former West Ham man capped a virtuoso display by setting up Salomon Kalou for the West Londoners’ match-clinching third.
Lampard earned a standing ovation from home fans in a 41,324 crowd, and surely the grudging admiration of even the most partisan among the 6,000-strong travelling corps, when he was substituted 10 minutes from time.
And while it was sometimes painful to watch, it was impossible not to be impressed by most of Avram Grant’s players.
There was the sheer physical power of Peruvian frontman Claudio Pizarro, the speed of thought and movement of Kalou and fellow African Mikel, the comfort on the ball of Terry, back from a two-month injury lay-off, and Wayne Bridge and the youthful promise of Scott Sinclair.
Town – who made their own Sinclair, the former Chelsea defender Frank, captain for the day – must have realised the size of their task when they saw the teamsheet.
For Chelsea had a combined £88m worth of talent in Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho, Andriy Shevchenko and Nicolas Anelka – and they were on the bench!
Ritchie’s side looked a little in awe as they spent most of the opening stages chasing shadows.
Chelsea were happy to pass the ball around, probing the Town defence and waiting for the right moment to strike.
Steve Sidwell had a shot deflected for a corner and Scott Sinclair a low drive hacked clear by Robbie Williams before, after 17 minutes and 18 seconds, Lampard reached his century of goals in his 353rd Chelsea appearance.
Scott Sinclair broke down the right and played in a low cross for Lampard to stroke a right-foot shot into the left-hand corner from the edge of the box.
Terry tested keeper Matt Glennon with a header from a Lampard corner, Sidwell had a shot blocked and Pizarro put a header from a Bridge cross wide as Chelsea threatened to extend their lead.
But Town slowly started to come out of their shell, and in their first decent move of the match after 31 minutes, Andy Holdsworth, Phil Jevons and Luke Beckett linked up well to play in Chris Brandon, whose darting run had Italian keeper Carlo Cudicini sliding out to smother.
Beckett was offside by the tightest of margins as he ran onto a Jevons pass, then in the 38th minute, Frank Sinclair won a corner, Williams flighted it in and when it was only partially cleared, Nathan Clarke hooked in a shot which Terry cleared off the line.
Soon after, Williams was wide with a shot from the edge of the area before, seven seconds over the 45-minute mark, Collins struck.
James Berrett, making only his fourth first-team start, picked out his fellow midfielder with a chipped pass and Collins controlled the ball on his chest before shooting low past Cudicini to send the Town fans at the opposite end of the stadium wild.
Collins goal clearly lifted Town’s players as well as fans, because in the opening stages of the second half, with Ritchie’s side keeping their shape and harrying their hosts, Chelsea looked a touch ruffled and Grant, who several times jumped out of the dug-out, more than a touch frustrated, particularly when a 54th-minute Kalou shot from close range hit the net but was disallowed for offside.
Chelsea finally regained the lead in the 60th minute when, after Matt Glennon parried his initial shot, Lampard, who had been set up by a slick three-man move, showed quick reactions to force home the rebound.
It could have been three four minutes later, but Scott Sinclair’s tap-in after Glennon saved one-handed after a mazy run and shot by Pizarro was also wiped off for offside.
Town were still active, and Holdsworth fired over from Williams’ 66th-minte corner.
But the crucial two-goal cushion was finally created by Chelsea in the 70th minute when Lampard’s accurate pass found star Kalou.
Glennon got an outstretched foot to the Ivory Coast star’s shot, but it still ended up in the net.
Williams was denied a late consolation when his well-struck free-kick went just wide.
Beaten three times but certainly not disgraced after pulling off a couple of impressive stops.
The former Chelsea star looked like he enjoyed his return, if not the result. Bright display.
Competed well against talented youngster Scott Sinclair but his set-pieces were a disappointment.
Took a long time to get into the game, but then grew stronger. Great experience for the midfield prospect.
Had a great battle with the powerful Claudio Pizarro and prevented at least the Peruvian from scoring!
Must have relished his return to the big stage and worked as hard as ever to organise the defence.
Like Holdsworth, took a while to adjust to the pace. Took his goal really well and had good second half.
What a place to make only your fourth first-team start. The 19-year-old continues to catch the eye.
Worked manfully but against John Terry, had few chances to maintain his previous goal-a-round record.
Like Beckett, the former Evertonian gave it his all but got little out of a solid Chelsea rearguard.
Always willing to work and take a chance, the left sider was the brightest of Town’s attackers.
Malvin Kamara for Jevons, 72mins; Andy Booth for Beckett, 79mins; Danny Schofield for Berrett, 84mins.Not used: David Mirfin, Simon Eastwood.
Cudicini, Ferreira, Ben-Haim, Terry, Bridge, Sidwell (Shevchenko, 74mins), Obi, Lampard (Essien, 80mins), Kalou, Pizarro (Anelka, 84mins), Sinclair.
Subs not used: Hilario, Carvalho
At 32, Mark Clattenburg is considered a bright young referee, and he lived up to the billing with his confident control of this tie.
To be fair, the Tyne and Wear whistler who took charge of Town’s Millennium Stadium play-off win over Mansfield in 2004 had little to deal with on the way of controversy, with an assistant’s flag accounting for the two disallowed home goals.