A GOAL two minutes into time added on at the end of the 90 turned Leasing.com qualification for Argyle to a wait-and-see scenario as Chelsea made it through to the second stage of the competition.
A draw would have reversed the two teams’ immediate fortunes, irrespective of the destination of the extra point from a penalty shoot-out that was rendered unnecessary by Jon Russell’s close-range finish.
It was desperate luck for Argyle, who had proved at least the equal of their talented young opponents and provided a much-needed confidence boost after a weekend to forget.
The Pilgrims can still progress in the competition, but only if the result of the final game in the group – Bristol Rovers v Swindon Town – goes their way.
Argyle manager Ryan Lowe had made six changes to the Pilgrims’ starting line-up from the one that had underperformed at Exeter three days previously, giving a first start to young home-grown midfielder Adam Randell and to Billy Clarke, a striker at the opposite end of the career spectrum.
Old dogs and all that – Clarke’s experience and sharpness very quickly came to the fore as his clever run into the six-yard area outfoxed his markers and enabled him to turn Byron Moore’s equally astute delivery towards goal.
Only the instincts of Chelsea goalkeeper Jamie Cumming prevented a goal, with Antoni Sarcevic blazing the loose ball high into the Barn Park end.
A year previously in the same competition, Argyle had found themselves overrun by the West London youngsters but, 12 months on, it was the Pilgrims who held sway and looked more threatening, not least of all when Joe Riley lashed a Blues' clearance just wide.
No-one had suffered more in the previous encounter than goalkeeper Mike Cooper, who had to retrieve the ball from his net on five occasions, each time looking more and more shellshocked. Now older and slightly more experienced, he made a fine save, coming from his goal to thwart Charlie Brown, who had latched on to Will Aimson’s misplaced pass to get in behind the Argyle cover.
Riley was at it again in the opening stages of the second half, trying another pot-shot from long range that was always on the high side, but it was Chelsea who created the first clear-cut opportunity, again through the lively Brown; again, Cooper was well positioned to deny him.
Chelsea were a different prospect after the break, though. Thy pressed harder and higher, and moved the ball quickly, pushing the Pilgrims back more often. Cooper again saved from Brown to keep things level.
Argyle brought on both their fit Grants, Joel first and then, against his parent club, Josh, before Randell went close with a direct free-kick, swung in from the right, which riffled the side-netting.
The game opened up as it entered its final quarter, with both sides finding space in which to work. Sarcevic, especially, exploited the gaps well, and Riley headed wide under pressure from one of his promptings.
A scramble from a corner then presented Chelsea with a chance to break the deadlock. Although Jack Wakely reacted well to stab the ball goalwards, Brown’s eagerness for once proved a negative as he blocked his team-mate's spontaneous shot.
As everyone was preparing for penalties, Chelsea broke one last time, with Thierno Ballo finding the left-hand bye-line to pull the ball back for Ruissell to finish with some aplomb.
Argyle (3-5-2): 1 Mike Cooper (gk); 4 Will Aimson (6 Niall Canavan 88), 5 Scott Wootton, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 2 Joe Riley, 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 20 Adam Randell, 32 George Cooper (25 Josh Grant 66), 21 Callum McFadzean; 18 Billy Clarke (16 Joel Grant 63), 17 Byron Moore. Substitutes (not used): 24 Alex Palmer (gk), 26 Mike Peck, 33 Rubin Wilson, 39 Zak Rudden.
Booked: Randell 21, Sarcevic 30.
Chelsea Under-21s (4-2-3-1): 31 Jamie Cumming; 61 Henry Lawrence, 53 Jack Wakely, 51 Clinton Mola. 49 Marcel Lavinier (72 Tino Lavramento 83); 52 Jon Russell, 45 George McEachran; 55 Tino Anjorin (67 Levi Colwill 73), 56 Thierno Ballo, 65 George Nunn (57 Armando Broja 90); 41 Charlie Brown. Substitutes (not used): 40 Karlo Ziger (gk), 62 Marcel Lewis, 66 Dynel Simeu, 68 Xavier Simons.
Referee: John Busby.
Attendance: 1,725 (125 away).