Exactly one year to the day after our famous comeback against Napoli in the Champions League, there were a lot of parallels to be drawn between Thursday night’s victory and that epic chapter in our Champions League success. Granted the task of overcoming a 1-0 deficit against Steaua Bucharest isn’t quite the same as reversing a 3-1 loss to a side with Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi up front, but all the same, it was an important win and an impressive performance.
A lot of fans it seems are ranking the Europa League bottom on their list of this season’s priorities. This evidently isn’t a view shared by the coach – I thought he fielded the strongest possible team he could. Mikel and Eden Hazard, the two substitutes who turned the game for us at Old Trafford, both played from the beginning, and John Terry returned to partner David Luiz at centre half.
To begin with, Steaua showed all of the determination and organisational skills that made the first leg so difficult; the first real chance of the game fell to the Romanian side with Cech forced into making a great early save, after a Terry and Mikel mix up had let Raul Rusescu clean through. For the first half an hour I thought we were playing with enough confidence but little intensity. Then on 35 minutes, Oscar won the ball on the half way line and thread through Juan Mata, who managed to roll it under the keeper after a neat one-two with Ramires. Steaua equalised with final kick of the half after some uncharacteristically sloppy defending from a corner, leaving us needing to score two without reply in the final 45 minutes.
Then, just like with Napoli 365 days ago, our second goal of the game was supplied by a 2nd half John Terry header. The Romanians had been careless with their marking of the Chelsea captain all game so far, a pretty inexcusable oversight not to give attention to a CH with almost 60 career goals! The big moment then came after Eden Hazard helped on a Juan Mata through ball to Fernando Torres who finished sharply into the bottom corner. What was great to see after this goal was scored, was how for the remaining 20 minutes we were still the only team that ever looked like scoring. Instead of sitting and defending the necessary lead, we played as if it us who needed another goal – showing a level of passion most welcoming after some of the drab non-performances this team has given us recently.
I heard one journalist say that after his goal, Fernando Torres was like “a man possessed”. All of sudden he was making runs left, right and centre, attempting step overs and taking the full backs on for pace. To some extent, every professional sportsman is a ‘confidence player’ but Torres takes these traits to a new extreme. The difference that goal made to his work rate, the decisions he was making and the quality of his touch seemed near immeasurable. If he could guarantee starting against West Ham like he finished against Steaua, I think anybody would pick him in a heartbeat. Have we seen too many such flashes now however to have realistic hopes of him maintaining any sort of consistency?
I was surprised to see that after the draw for the European cups on Friday, Chelsea were made favourites for the Europa League. I thought we were handed the toughest possible draw, with a home leg first against Rubin Kazan. Usually footballers and coaches like to insist they’re happy to play anybody, but at this stage of an already hectic season, it’s obvious nobody wants to go to Russia to play in the freezing cold (on a potentially synthetic pitch). Even without the travelling, Rubin will be tough to get past. The Russians so far have eliminated Levante as well as last year’s winners (Falcao-fronted) Atletico Madrid; they also finished above Inter in their group. With talented Spaniards Ivan Marcano and Pablo Orbaiz, and Venezuelan forward Saloman Rondon, they can be dangerous for anybody. If we play like we did in Romania in either leg here, I wouldn’t rate our chances of progressing.
Before the international break we have one more fixture to play in the Premier League against West Ham Utd, who’ll be looking to do the double over us after that 3-1 defeat back in November (Rafa’s first defeat in charge). It’ll be interesting to see who he picks, given I think he’s finally seemed to settle on a best XI, which includes a front six of Mikel, Ramires, Oscar, Mata, Hazard and Demba Ba. I assume that Frank Lampard and Victor Moses will be rotated in for Sunday, most likely for Oscar and Mikel. I think there is a chance Benitez might stick with Torres up front as well, giving him a chance to follow on from his best 30 mins of 2013 so far, and to avenge his thankfully irrelevant penalty miss. Ivanovic and Cahill might come back in also.
I think we should win. West Ham are well drilled and an impressive physical side, but there is a real notable lack of quality in their midfield. Even Joe Cole is more of a trusty foot soldier these days than an exciting creative outlet. With the form some of our key players are in at the moment, as against West Brom two weeks ago, we should be able to keep the ball and make chances relatively easily.
Finally, I’d just like to direct a sincere and heartfelt “fuck you” to the revolting poison of European football that is George Becali, who I very much hope was watching when Torres scored that “impossible” third goal, and he joined a very long list of football fans who have written Chelsea off at some point over the last year or so and been made to look pretty stupid because of it.
Never mind George, at least you still have nice shoes.