27 March 2012 - 10:01 PM
Super Salomon scores as Blues beat Benfica
@AlexHinsleyCFC1053 Views Salomon Kalou scored as Chelsea defeated Benfica to record a first away win in this season's Champions League - giving them a great chance of progressing to the last four of the competition.
The Ivorian striker, who has been blasted by Chelsea fans throughout his indifferent career with the West London outfit, was instrumental in an efficient and professional performance by Roberto di Matteo's side, and it was he who netted with fifteen minutes remaining to give the Blues an outstanding victory and put one foot in a potential semi-final encounter with either AC Milan or Barcelona.
The game's only goal came about after a swift Chelsea counter-attack, with Ramires feeding the effervescent Fernando Torres, who seems reinvigorated after his recent brace against Leicester City. Marauding into the box, the Spaniard cleverly clipped the ball into the feet on the onrushing Kalou - and the Ivorian expertly converted from close range for what is his fifth goal this term and his sixtieth in his Chelsea career.
In what can be described as a classic European away performance, to a man Chelsea defended with purpose and attacked with vigour, and much of the credit must go to interim coach Roberto di Matteo for a bold team selection that saw six of the players that started in Saturday's derby draw with Tottenham consigned to the bench. In comparison to the often-naive tactical set-up of Andre Villas-Boas, di Matteo's side were perfectly prepared to cope with the attacking prowess of a Benfica side that had netted in every home match for the past two-and-a-half years, whilst at the same time offering enough attacking potency to trouble the Portuguese side.
And though the aforementioned Kalou and Torres both cut figures of industry with their selfless performances for the team, it was the two former Benfica stars David Luiz and Ramires that stole the show. Applauded both before kick-off and at the final whistle by what was ultimately a very subdued Estadio da Luz, the pair highlighted their importance to the current Chelsea team at the same time as putting in a claim to form part of the spine of what will eventually become the future of the club.
Whilst Luiz was resolute in defence - the highlight of his display a brave block on the line with his chest to deny Oscar Cardozo's stinging close-range volley - Ramires demonstrated his seemingly limitless energy with a performance that saw him cover the length and breadth of his old stomping ground. The Brazilian pair were, and remain, much-admired figures during their time in Lisbon, and on the basis of this performance and on the season in general, it is clear to see why the temporary Chelsea boss holds the pair in such high esteem.
Ultimately, Benfica were quite disappointing; the all-out attack that has characterised their play in recent years totally absent but for a brief spell following the interval. Though Petr Cech was forced to make a handful of excellent saves, the best of which saw him deny Jardel's bullet header, Chelsea denied the hosts the chance to express themselves in their trademark fashion; frustrating and aggravating the home supporters.
Chelsea had chances of their own and the first real effort of intent from either side saw Raul Meireles low shot pushed wide by Artur. Cardozo had earlier blazed high and wide from a tight angle as he fluffed a half-chance, but Benfica were lacklustre in a first half that the Blues certainly boasted the best of. The home side had a spell of sustained pressure for about ten minutes immediately after the restart, but after two strokes of good fortune saw di Matteo's charges weather the belated Benfica storm, the screw was turned and the Blues grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck.
The first lucky break for the visiting team came when Cardozo's shot smacked Luiz in the midriff. Cech was beaten and it was merely the defender's grade-A instinct that had ensured parity. A bigger slice of fortune soon followed when the home side were denied a penalty when John Terry handled inside the area. The referee either missed it or deemed it to be accidental, but Terry's arms were outstretched - you have certainly seen spot-kicks given for that, and Chelsea fans would have cursed their luck if the same had occurred at the opposite end.
But rather than galvanising the home side, that moment seemed to spur the away side into action. With the warning shot duly noted, Chelsea surged forwards and on 53 minutes really ought to have opened the scoring, only for Kalou to woefully head over after Torres had cut inside and supplied the Ivorian with a superb cross. Six yards out and just the keeper left to beat, Kalou fluffed his lines. His infectious ability to spurn glorious chances soon befell upon Juan Mata, who clipped the post minutes later after rounding Artur following Petr Cech's massive up-field clearances. The chances were coming.
It was the much-maligned Torres that crafted the winner as he powered beyond Emerson and into the Benfica box in the 75th minute. His pull-back was converted by the sliding Kalou to send the raucous travelling support into ecstasy.
Mata then wasted a glorious chance to put the tie to bed when he selfishly tried to chip Artur when a pass to Torres was a more obvious option for the diminutive Spaniard. It has not been a good period for the ex-Valencia star, who has been struggling with fitness recently. Another below-par showing here will hopefully be enough to encourage di Matteo to give Chelsea's fatigued number 10 the chance to have a rest. Having featured in 44 of Chelsea's 47 games this season, it is no surprise to see him struggling at this stage of the campaign.
There was to be no final hurrah from the home side. Benfica coach Jorge Jesus looked a forlorn figure on the sidelines. Benfica seemed to have frozen on their big night; a draw that they had fancied looked already to be getting away from them as the Blues recorded a first victory in the Champions League away from Stamford Bridge in 14 months, and just their second since October 2010. Not only that, but Chelsea continued their impressive trend of netting first in all of their European games this season, with Kalou's winner being the ninth occasion in which the Blues have done so.
While the players will earn all the plaudits for a performance of guts, determination and professionalism, the hero of the day is the former fans' favourite; Roberto di Matteo. Having experienced first-hand the demise of Andre Villas-Boas, the Italian has shown considering backbone in his vehement defence of an ageing Chelsea squad, and his faith in them was repaid in kind by his players. The will to win has returned since di Matteo's appointment, and it is only fair to commend the man who scored that goal at Wembley for an effective team selection and spot-on tactical performance.
He may not have the arsenal of attacking talent that Harry Redknapp or Roberto Mancini have at their disposal, but di Matteo has been able to motivate his players to a standard that puts his side in a great position to progress to the semi-finals of a competition they may well be taking a brief hiatus from. With fourth place becoming an increasingly distant objective for a side that has been unable to replicate their recent Champions League and FA Cup exploits in the Premier League, it would seem that actually winning the competition is di Matteo's best bet of securing football in this competition next term.
Such a feat borders on the impossible, however, but if this is to be Chelsea's last European adventure for some time, then there is no better way to go about things than in the entirely admirable fashion in which stalwarts such as John Terry, Petr Cech and Ashley Cole have done in these famous victories over Napoli and now Portugal's most-successful club. The Champions League dream is still on, however distant an ambition it may be for the club.
Whatever comes of Chelsea's fate in this competition come May, the fact remains - there's only one team in Europe.
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