Somehow, the Blues march on

April, 4, 2012
Raul MeirelesGlyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesIt was unimpressive in parts, but Chelsea rose to the European occasion, winning 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) to move past Benfica and book a spot in the Champions League semis against Barca.

Do you think Lionel Messi is quaking in his boots right now? Or Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Cesc Fabregas? Perhaps, if they're about to get onto one of those mechanical bulls, but the prospect of facing Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals will no doubt give the Catalans a boost of confidence, certainly after watching the Blues defeat Benfica at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night 2-1 and go through on aggregate, 3-1. It'll be a rematch of the 2009 Champions League semifinal, one that ended in controversy and a certain Didier Drogba yelling "It's a @@#$#@ disgrace" into the camera after a controversial ending.

Mercifully, there were no disgraces on the field against Benfica on Wednesday. For the most maligned topflight club in English football, Chelsea has exceeded expectations. It's the Blues -- not City, not United, not Arsenal, not Spurs -- who reached the Champions League semifinals. You wouldn't have seen that coming a few months ago, and it's only European glory that owner Roman Abramovich cares about, if we're to believe what we read. They played brilliantly in the second leg against Napoli, a gut-check moment if there ever was one, and while there was nothing flashy about Wednesday's win, it was a win. Credit Roberto Di Matteo -- who loves to dole out the hugs to his veteran players, who apparently still need the emotional reinforcements -- for applying the defibrillators to a so-called "aging" squad.

Then again, if this is the best England has to offer right now, well …

As for the performance against Benfica, you could be charitable and say it was workmanlike. But, more like it, Chelsea's display was rather poor, with a score line that flattered to deceive. For the first 40 minutes, the Portuguese side essentially passed the Blues off the pitch, particularly in the midfield. Whether it was Chelsea's plan to concede the bulk of possession and play on the counter or it wasn't good enough to grab hold of the match is perhaps the biggest question about Chelsea's performance.

Yet, it was against the run of play in the 20th minute that John Terry hit a lofted, chipped long ball down the left-hand side to Ashley Cole. Javi Garcia, filling in at center back given that Benfica were without several potential starting defenders before the game (the likes of Ezequiel Garay, Jardel and Miguel Vitor), was caught on the wrong side of the Chelsea left back for what was a clear penalty (unlike the rather soft second penalty given against Milan in Tuesday's match). Frank Lampard slotted in the penalty to become the highest-scoring Englishman in the Champions League knockout stages, passing Wayne Rooney to put the Blues in control.

But Benfica continued to look the more threatening side -- a set piece in the 30th minute saw an Axel Witsel header set up Oscar Cardozo, and if not for Terry positioned behind Petr Cech, Benfica would have tied up the match right then and there. The Chelsea captain had a dependable game before being subbed off in the second half, too, seeing away danger on more than one occasion -- in particular, stopping a pinball-esque sequence between Pablo Aimar and Bruno Cesar. If anything, Benfica were sometimes too clever for their own good, though the side's slick passing and skill were much more aesthetically pleasing than the long balls and bombs into the box in the first leg last week.

But everyone, from the commentators to the Twitter-sphere, was announcing that the match was done and dusted in the 40th minute. Not because of any brilliance on Chelsea's part, mind, but because of an act of stupidity by Maxi Pereira. He lost control of the ball, and instead of leaving well enough alone, he couldn't help but slide into John Mikel Obi for a second yellow.

The match fizzled out from there, no doubt about that, yet Benfica fought gamely to keep creating more of the chances down the stretch despite being a man down. What will irritate Di Matteo most was the profligacy of his own side in the second half -- Salomon Kalou was more useless than a re-release of "Titanic," Ramires missed a gilt-edge chance at the far post, and poor, poor old Fernando Torres was off the mark, not syncing up with his teammates' passes and snatching at balls. The shot that he topped over in the 45th minute was especially painful to watch, but credit Chelsea fans: They deserve some sort of collective medal for sticking with the Spaniard. Even when Torres made a nifty turn at the D in the 53rd minute, he didn't so much strike the ball as push it.

In the 85th minute, on a corner, Garcia blew by a ball-watching David Luiz and headed the ball home, while Cech remained rooted to his spot like a spring tulip. The remaining nervy minutes were decided when Aimar got cold feet in the face of a high-boot challenge by Raul Meireles in the 79th minute. Aimar backed out, and Meireles was off to the races, burying his chance against a stretched Benfica defense. The former Porto man was triumphant -- and surely thrilled to stick one to an old rival -- in sealing what was otherwise a puzzling Chelsea performance.

On current form, will Chelsea be good enough to test Barca? Or was it simply dependable, doing just the right amount of work to see the side through against a 10-man Benfica before being sent to the slaughter? No doubt the Blues will have to significantly improve before facing the defending champs.

As it stands, the Blues can embellish some of their stats. They have now qualified for the semifinals of the Champions League in six of the past nine seasons, and Wednesday's win made them five-for-five at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League this season. Also, the Blues have lost just two of their previous 40 home European ties against non-English teams, and have won all nine European ties when they won the away leg first. They've also conceded more than one goal in only one of their past 14 Champions League home games.

All of that looks good on paper. But much of Chelsea's performance on the pitch did not correlate against Benfica. Further cause for concern at Stamford Bridge is that Chelsea is also preparing for the upcoming FA Cup semifinal against Spurs, and is rank outsider to finish in the top four in the league and secure Champions League for next season. So Abramovich might want to savor these European nights while they last, before his team faces Barcelona.

Still, the Blues have a chance, small as it may seem, and that's more than any other Prem side can still boast.





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