Chelsea FC advanced to the Champions League semifinals Wednesday night, completing a nervy 2-1 win over Benfica at Stamford Bridge. It was by no means an easy night for the Blues, as Petr Cech was called upon multiple times to bail his defense out. With that said, they did what champions do best: see out the win no matter how lopsided play may be.
They now face perhaps their most daunting task of the season, taking on Spanish giants and Champions League favorites Barcelona. The Catalans will be favorites going into the tie, as their play this season has bordered on perfection and the incredible form of Lionel Messi has been nothing short of historic.
However, the vast majority of fans, who are ruling out any chance the lone remaining English team has of making it to Munich, are being neglectful of the history and strength Chelsea have shown against Barcelona in the past and their opponents this season.
Here are five things we can take away from the Benfica game that tell us about their chances for future advancement.
As much as it pains me to say, this is not the Chelsea team of a few years ago. They are not as dynamic and athletic as they once were. The notion that they can single-handedly beat an opponent down with unmitigated defense and an overpowering attack is long behind them.
This is a team that now relies more on their experience than their technical abilities.
On the one hand, this gives them a massive advantage over their opponents. Of the final four teams remaining, the Chelsea players have seen more game time than any of the others and are much better fit mentally to deal with the kind of adversity that can derail a squad.
Not enough emphasis is put on the calmness that can steady a rocky ship, but it is absolutely important. Just look at their comeback over Napoli. Few expected them to complete it, especially the Italians themselves, who had no answer for the late surge the Blues put on.
This was true even in Wednesday’s game against Benfica. Javi Garcia’s 85th-minute goal may have rattled the confidence of the fans, who knew the momentum could swing another the visitor’s way. But the players themselves never wavered, and Raul Meireles’ stoppage time goal secured the victory.
The contemporary form Chelsea have may not make it easy on the heart to watch, but it will also give the benefit of the doubt to the team in blue.
I have never been so angry or dismissive of my fellow Chelsea supporters as when the calls for the exit of Frank Lampard came up. I found them to be totally ignorant and lacking in any kind recognition of the immense quality he brings to this team.
Again, quality is not judged only in creating chances and majestic play. That is all pretext for the ultimate result, which matters most.
Frank Lampard, the man many said can no longer play and Andre Villas-Boas was right to bench, is leading the team in goals with 15, two of which came against Napoli and Benfica in the second leg of each tie.
The argument from naysayers will of course come down as “they were both penalties.” Yes, but that does not make them any less valuable. If penalties are such gimme goals, then why has the team’s best player, Juan Mata, missed two huge ones?
The fact that he is as close to perfect as you can get from the spot is reason enough to keep him on the pitch. Add in the fact that he has seven assists between the Champions League and the EPL, and he has accounted in some way for 30 percent of all goals for Chelsea in both competitions.
As long as Lamps continues to show this form, the Blues always have a chance.
Torres had a poor game against Benfica, to say the least. He was completely absent in every way possible, not getting on the end of passes, taking bad touches and not linking up with the midfield the way he has over the past few weeks.
Granted, the game plan going in suggested this would happen. With nine men always behind the ball defending the goal, Torres was bound to get isolated up top, a role he rarely performs well in. But that does not totally excuse his lack of threat on the Benfica net.
I have always treaded lightly around the notion that Torres is “back.” I think we will never see the same player that was tearing up the league at Liverpool, and surely he will never justify the price it took to get him. But he still can be a valuable asset to the team.
He should be happy to face Barcelona in the semis. He has scored more goals against the Catalans in his career than any other, with the exception of the team he currently plays for.
But it is foolish for us to automatically assume a good game or two by him means he is ready to take over the full time responsibilities on a game-to-game basis. There are still plenty of things Drogba does better and vice versa. The choice for who gets the start still needs to be contingent on who matches up better and who is in current form.
There was absolutely no mystery in what Chelsea were going to do against Benfica Wednesday night. Most assumed prior to the match that they would park the bus in front of goal and not risk getting caught up field. Anyone who doubted this was dismissed in the first ten minutes, as it seemed the only time Chelsea touched the ball was to kick it as far away from their net as possible.
It was not some kind of tactical brilliance that had Di Matteo the victor Wednesday; it was the simple logic that with a 1-0 lead, all they needed to do was keep Benfica from scoring and they would be through.
Chelsea is not a team of the modern game. They are quite simple-minded in their approach to the sport, doing whatever it takes to get through. This might not always make it the prettiest game to watch, but it is effective nonetheless.
Di Matteo has rarely deviated from this formula during his time in charge, as it has been successful. Why mess with a good thing? If they need goals, he has the midfield push up and try to get them. If he wants to prevent goals, he has the forwards track back and put pressure on the opposition.
It is as simplistic as can be and probably seems barbaric to all these “great” tacticians that dot the sport today. But so far he has out-foxed many of them by always putting out the formula that best suits his side to get the result.
The English game has taken a big blow this year, with only two teams making it to the knockout stages. Both Manchester City and Manchester United saw themselves bounced in the group stage by the pristine passing of indirect teams. They had déjà vu in the Europa Cup, as they both found themselves the victims of passing games.
The trending question has been whether England’s brutish style of play can keep up with the finesse happening on the mainland.
While many have begun to sway toward the popular claim of no, it cannot, they are failing to see how Chelsea have made quite a bit of headway in dealing with these kinds of teams by simply outlasting them through excellent defense.
Some may think it started when they shut down Napoli’s attack, which many suggest may be one of the best in the world. But in fact it is something they have been doing ever since Stamford Bridge became known as a fortress in 2004.
Their incredible 15-goals-conceded season set the framework for one of the most dominant defenses over the past decade. It seemed to have begun to vanish this year, as Villas-Boas messed with a good thing, but since they have gotten back to their old habits it has been like turning back the clock.
Goals may be what gets you remembered, but as long as you play solid defense you can never lose a game. With Chelsea riding that as their calling card, they remain alive in every match they play.
It is by no means an easy stretch moving forward, and the schedulers have not helped them out at all. The Blues have six games over the next 17 days, including an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham, a pivotal league game at Arsenal and, of course, both legs against Barcelona.
But there is always hope when you are a Chelsea fan. What do you think the odds are that Chelsea get through to the final?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
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