Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague: 6 Things We Learnt

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2013

Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague: 6 Things We Learnt

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    Chelsea will play Steaua Bucharest in the last 16 of the Europa League after they spluttered to a 1-1 draw against Sparta Prague at Stamford Bridge.

    The result gave the Blues a 2-1 victory on aggregate, but Rafa Benitez and his players know they need a drastic improvement if they are to progress further in the competition.

    Listed among the favorites to lift the Europa League trophy in Amsterdam come May, Chelsea may have dominated possession against their Czech opponents, but a number of wasted opportunities in front of goal meant it was left to Eden Hazard's 90th-minute wonder strike to seal their progress.

    Indeed, it was a goal worthy of winning any cup tie, so while we now know the Blues will compete in the next round and who their opposition will be, what else did we learn? Bleacher Report takes a look at six things to come out of this Chelsea victory.

Manchester City Were the Real Winners

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    While Chelsea may have been the overall winners from their last 32 tie with Sparta Prague, it is Manchester City who will be reaping the benefits from this game.

    Leading 1-0 after the first leg, Rafa Benitez still put out a relatively strong team at Stamford Bridge against the Czechs to make sure of progression in the Europa League. As it turned out, he needed his big guns as the Blues struggled to see off a dogged performance from the visitors.

    Ideally, Chelsea would have had the game wrapped up by halftime, allowing the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar to be withdrawn and rested ahead of Sunday's clash with City. It wasn't the case, and Mata was forced to play the full 90 minutes as Chelsea looked for a way past Prague.

    They got their reward via Eden Hazard's expertly taken goal, but Benitez would have wanted this game put to bed a lot earlier and a lot more comfortably, too.

    Roberto Mancini would have been watching on in delight no doubt, safe in the knowledge that his players will be rested and ready for Sunday, while Chelsea have just over 48 hours to recover before they head into battle at the Etihad Stadium.

Oscar Is Becoming a Senior Player at Chelsea

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    He may have been withdrawn a little after the hour mark, but Oscar put in another Man of the Match display for Chelsea against Sparta Prague.

    The Brazilian's performances of late have been particularly impressive and he has grown in stature. Indeed, his form is reminiscent of his play earlier this season, but now the 21-year-old is beginning to impact games a lot more and also control them, too.

    Some may see it that his substitution outlines that Rafa Benitez deems him less important than the likes of Juan Mata, that the Blues needed the Spaniard more than his Brazilian teammate. It's on the contrary, though. With Manchester City in mind, Benitez was removing Oscar from play in order to ensure he is rested as can be come Sunday when he will be vital.

    Sure, his replacement in Eden Hazard scored the vital goal on the night, but that's not to take the focus off the Brazilian. In a poor Chelsea performance, he was the shining light again, and he was at the heart of everything positive the Blues created.

    He played with responsibility and an element of leadership, endeavoring to drive his team forward. There's a long way to go before he can claim the same status as Frank Lampard or John Terry, but Oscar looks to be making all the right moves.

Chelsea Want to Win the Europa League

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    Contrary to belief, Chelsea are serious about winning the Europa League.

    Whether it's a desire to make history in winning the competition for the first time in the club's history or to not end the season without a trophy, Rafa Benitez's side showed plenty of desire against Sparta Prague.

    And Eden Hazard's last-minute equalizer was celebrated with gusto—close your eyes and it could have been a Champions League night at Stamford Bridge.

    Make no mistake, the Blues would much rather be competing in the competition they won last season, but with over 38,000 fans in attendance and a team plucking away until the last seconds, this is very much a club taking the Europa League seriously.

Reputations Count for Little

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    We saw it last season when the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City dropped out of the Champions League and into the Europa League, only to have their European hopes crushed even further.

    This year it's happened again with Ajax losing on penalties to Steaua Bucharest, who have booked a last 16 encounter with Chelsea.

    The same almost happened at Stamford Bridge, too. Sparta Prague played without fear upon their visit to West London, and while the Blues had their fair share of chances to score more than their solitary goal, so too did the Czech outfit.

    It was a promising display, one that threw reputations out of the window on a night when Chelsea were expected to steamroll the opposition.

    Chelsea will have to get used to that. They may be among the favorites, but they're not going to have this Europa League campaign all their own way—European champions or not.

Time Drags in the Europa League

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    Let's not get overcritical of the Europa League, but despite all the action and drama at Stamford Bridge, the game still appeared to drag somewhat.

    Whether it was the involvement of the crowd or lack of interest from the commentators, watching this clash from the comfort of a living room lacked the appeal of a Champions League encounter.

    It may have been a different experience for those in attendance at Stamford Bridge, but the Europa League has long had a reputation for failing to grip an audience—this game was no different.

    It's a little unfair to constantly draw comparison with the Champions League, but in the modern era, said competition is the pinnacle of European club football, which all competitions will be compared to.

    Chelsea versus Sparta Prague gave us so much—a potential giant killing, end-to-end action and a late equalizer worthy of any Champions League goal, but it still lacked a certain panache. It failed to stir the senses.

    At stages, time seemed to drip down the clock. It was palpable almost—for those Blues fans used to a higher brand of European football, it's going to be a painful remainder of the season.

Criticism of Fernando Torres Is over the Top

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    Yes, he cost £50 million, but his price tag doesn't mean Fernando Torres should be executing impossible feats every time he turns out in a Chelsea shirt.

    The Spaniard had a mixed performance against Sparta Prague on Thursday, but outside of Oscar and Eden Hazard, name a Blues player who didn't. Even the dependable Juan Mata wasn't as clinical as we know he can be.

    According to the ESPN U.K. commentators, Torres should have had a hat-trick by half time. A hat-trick? Based on his three half chances in the opening period?

    It's a narrative that has been maintained since he joined Chelsea in January 2010 and one that shows little sign of abating. Even when the Spaniard carved out a chance from nothing, feigning two defenders before running at goal only for the goalkeeper to pull off an excellent save, Torres was criticized.

    Rather than praise the goalkeeper for an excellent turn of skill in that instance, it was the Spaniard on the receiving end of some harsh analysis.

    This isn't to say Torres does not have his problems—he evidently does. However, he is playing in a team where he is not the only player demonstrating inconsistencies in his performance—but, with his teammates not carrying the burden of a record-breaking price tag, he is very much the scapegoat in the media's eyes.

    It's harsh, but £50 million comes with a weight of expectation regardless of the circumstances.