John Terry was laughing when the referee, Kevin Friend, jogged over to him in the 67th minute. Chelsea were home and hosed against Peterborough United from League One on the back of goals from Pedro, Michy Batshuayi and Willian but Terry had just botched his last-man challenge on Lee Angol and he must have known what was coming.
Perhaps the smiles were out of embarrassment or simply the ludicrous nature of the situation. Kurt Zouma, playing his first game since February of last year, had been unable to cut out a through-ball and when Angol dropped his shoulder and darted to his left he found that Terry had thrown himself at his feet.
Angol had nowhere to go but down and over Terry and, despite the old warrior’s protestations – and those that would follow from Antonio Conte – Friend took the correct decision to dismiss him. When the red card came out Terry’s face fell.
It had been his first appearance since 5 November and only his eighth of the season. He did not envisage it finishing like this. When he finally trudged off, after a matey-looking conversation with Friend, it was difficult to ignore the feeling that we were witnessing the countdown to the end for Terry at Stamford Bridge.
He has been unable to break into the Chelsea team that have surged to the top of the Premier League table and misjudgments like this one will not convince Conte to reinstate him or put trust in the club’s captain in the longer term. Zouma came through the full 90 minutes after his lengthy knee injury lay-off while Conte has recalled Nathan Aké from his loan spell at Bournemouth. The manager said Aké could provide an option on the left or in the centre of his preferred back three.
Terry is now 36, his contract will expire in the summer and there has been no talk as yet of a renewal. There may still be more matches for him this season – perhaps, in the FA Cup – but, at the very least, Terry faces an anxious wait to see what the club have planned for him.
Terry’s sending-off was the headline detail of a high-tempo FA Cup win for Chelsea. Peterborough gave their 6,000 travelling fans something to bellow about when Michael Smith’s low cross was touched on by Angol and Tom Nichols swept past Asmir Begovic. It was a moment that everybody connected to the club will cherish for some time.
Peterborough carried the fight to the home side; they did not come merely to sit deep and frustrate, and Grant McCann, the manager, could talk with pride at how his team, who sit ninth in League One, had performed.
They started well and a big moment came in the eighth minute when Angol prodded at Begovic from three yards out, after Marcus Maddison’s cross. The Chelsea goalkeeper blocked. The visitors also threatened when Ryan Tafazolli glanced wide from a 13th‑minute corner.
But Chelsea were a cut above. Pedro restored their three-goal advantage after Nichols’s goal and the final margin of victory could have been more handsome such was their dominance. They created not only fistfuls of chances but fistfuls of clear ones.
Batshuayi had been keen to mark only his fourth start for Chelsea with a goal and there were times when he looked a little too keen. On 39 minutes he had eyes only for the shot inside the area, even though Willian was better placed to his right, and he ended up being crowded out. Willian was frustrated. So too was Conte. But last summer’s £33m signing from Marseille got what he craved just before the interval.
Batshuayi’s goal followed smart work from Willian and a four-on-two Chelsea break, which seemed remarkable at that point of the tie. Branislav Ivanovic crossed and, when Ruben Loftus-Cheek set the ball up, Batshuayi drilled a low shot into the corner.
Conte made nine changes from the league defeat at Tottenham Hotspur last Wednesday and he said he was happy with the performances of his younger players Zouma, Nathaniel Chalobah, Loftus-Cheek and Batshuayi – together with the substitute, Ola Aina.
Pedro was one of the two survivors in the starting XI from White Hart Lane and his first goal was beautifully taken – a fizzing shot into the far, top corner after Luke McGee had beaten out Chalobah’s shot.
Gary Cahill had hit the post on six minutes with an extravagant back-heeled flick from a corner while Pedro rattled the crossbar after jinking inside following Loftus-Cheek’s pass.
Chelsea had other chances in the first half through Terry, Batshuayi and Willian and more after the break through Loftus-Cheek, Chalobah and Batshuayi. Willian’s goal came when he cut inside and shot into the far corner while Pedro got his second after an exchange with Batshuayi and a precision low shot.
“When you change nine players it’s not easy to find quickly your idea of football, but it happened,” Conte said. “I saw a lot of positive things. We won as a team and that is the most important thing.”