By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer, at Deepdale
Sturridge scored his third goal for Chelsea
Chelsea strolled past Preston North End in impressive fashion to move into the FA Cup fifth round with victory at Deepdale.
Darren Ferguson - in his first home match since taking over as Preston manager - harboured hopes of starting his reign by producing a shock against the FA Cup holders.
But Carlo Ancelotti's side contained too much style and steel for their Championship opponents as the holders demonstrated that they fully intend to keep their hands on the trophy they won against Everton at Wembley last May.
Nicolas Anelka's low drive put Chelsea ahead after 37 minutes and Daniel Sturridge slammed in a second just after the restart to ensure their comfortable passage into the next round.
Preston's big opportunity came and went shortly after Anelka gave Chelsea the lead, and Darren Carter will have nightmares about how he somehow failed to hit the target from point-blank range with keeper Hilario out of position.
The only worry for Chelsea came with a second-half injury to Frank Lampard, while Preston boss Ferguson can now concentrate on his main business of moving Preston up the Championship table.
Ancelotti did not make Ferguson's task any easier by selecting a strong Chelsea team - a sign that they will not relinquish their grip on the trophy easily.
Ferguson was given a warm reception as he made his Deepdale entrance, and Preston almost gave him the perfect start after only seven minutes when keeper Hilario, deputising for the rested Petr Cech, had to be alert to beat Richard Chaplow to Chris Brown's header.
Chelsea's greater quality was stamped all over this tie from a very early stage however, and Preston keeper Andy Lonergan kept his side on level terms when he blocked Yuri Zhirkov's effort after he exchanged passes with Lampard.
They suffered an early blow when Juliano Belletti limped off to be replaced by Florent Malouda after struggling following an early clash with Chaplow.
And they were only deprived of a lead they deserved by awful refereeing from Mike Dean, who inexplicably failed to play the advantage rule, blowing for a free-kick after Malouda turned the ball into the net from close range.
It was only delaying the inevitable, and Anelka broke the deadlock eight minutes before the interval when he cut inside and scored via the legs of Lonergan, who appeared to be unsighted.
Preston needed to mount an instant response if they were to have any chance of staying in contention - and they should have levelled within seconds. Carter seemed certain to score as the ball dropped loose after Hilario's outstanding save from Brown's header, but he scooped his finish over the top.
And the cost of that miss was emphasised right after half-time as Sturridge hammered home from close range when Lonergan could only block John Terry's free header.
This ended the tie as a contest, and despite Preston never throwing in the towel, Chelsea closed out the victory without ever having to break sweat. The only concern was the sight of Lampard signalling to the bench that he needed to be taken off.
And the Preston fans did themselves great credit on a day of disappointment by warmly applauding the England midfield man as he made his way to the tunnel.
Chelsea could, and should, have added to their lead as Sturridge twice came close and the ever-dangerous Anelka saw his effort well saved by Lonergan. Joe Cole, on for the injured Lampard, almost got in the act, but his shot was off target.
Chelsea coach Ray Wilkins: "Nicolas is playing some outstanding football. He is a joy to have around the place.
"We put out a strong team to show what we think of the FA Cup. We're the holders and want to retain it.
"We had to defend our box at times but we did that well."
Preston manager Darren Ferguson: "There are always key moments in games. A minute before half-time we missed a great chance. But I told Darren (Carter) to keep getting in there.
"Then we lost a disappointing goal to a set-piece and that killed the game.
"The fans were brilliant, gave me a great reception. They want to see effort and commitment and we gave them that."
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