Chelsea may have underperformed in the Champions League this season, but they are finding the Europa League much more to their liking, earning a place in the last eight of the competition with a deserved 3-1 defeat of a spirited Steaua Bucharest at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night.
The Blues, then, still have a chance of becoming the first Champions League winners to go on to win UEFA’s secondary competition the following season.
If they could triumph in Amsterdam in May, Chelsea would also become the first English club to win all three historical UEFA trophies: the European Cup/Champions League, European Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup/Europa League.
So, some important records are still very much up for grabs. First, though, the Blues will have to get past Rubin Kazan in the quarterfinals.
For more thoughts on that tie and the victory over Steaua, read on:
An hour before kick-off the area around Stamford Bridge was swarming with hundreds of excited Steaua Bucharest fans, a fair few of them wearing jesters hats in their team’s colours.
It was quite a jolly scene, but surely not one that would have appealed much to Nigel Farage, the foghorn-voiced leader of UKIP. In recent weeks Farage has been banging on pretty much non-stop about the dangers of “unfettered immigration” from Romania and Bulgaria, and the sight of hordes of Romanians milling around the streets of London would, one imagines, have had him choking on his pre-match horseburger.
The Steaua fans, though, added greatly to the atmosphere inside the stadium, roaring their approval of their team’s attacking moves and producing deafening whistles whenever Chelsea passed the halfway line.
Sadly, security concerns over segregation meant that tickets did not go on general sale to the public, with the result that the attendance was slightly under 29,000—Chelsea’s lowest in any competition for six years.
The hushed masses at Stamford Bridge waited eagerly for news and then, with a puff of metaphorical white smoke blowing out from the Chelsea changing room, it came: "Cardinal" Rafa Benitez had elected John Terry to start in this vital Europa League clash.
In fact, Terry’s return in place of Gary Cahill was the only change from the Blues side that had finished the previous match so strongly at Old Trafford. All the same, Chelsea took a while to find the fluency in their passing that had marked their second half display in Manchester.
It didn’t help that the Steaua players were buzzing around the home team like angry bees in the opening stages, closing down space so quickly that the Blues found it difficult to make any real headway whenever they approached their opponents’ goal.
Indeed, the first half hour suggested that this could be a long and frustrating night for the Londoners.
With Steaua defending in numbers, a piece of brilliance was required to make the breakthrough. It came when first Juan Mata and then Ramires ran forward at speed, the Spaniard receiving the ball back from the Brazilian before turning to shoot in off a post.
Steaua’s equaliser, on the stroke of half-time, was an untidy affair, Vlad Chiriches drilling in the ball from a corner after his first effort was blocked on the line.
Chelsea needed to up their game after the break, and that’s exactly what they did, helped at times by some naïve Romanian defending. An unmarked John Terry put the Blues ahead with a firm header from Mata’s floated free-kick, before Fernando Torres grabbed the tie-winning goal with a low left-footer from 12 yards out.
Torres' late penalty miss didn't matter in the end and proved one thing: Roberto Di Matteo was quite right to keep the Spanish striker well clear of the shoot-out in last season's Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
The quarterfinal draw on Friday morning paired Chelsea with Russian side Rubin Kazan.
In case you missed it, here's the draw in full:
Chelsea v Rubin Kazan
Tottenham v Basel
Benfica v Newcastle
Presumably, Rafa Benitez would have preferred opposition a little bit closer to home than Rubin Kazan, who play in Tatarstan, some 1,000 km east of Moscow. Is that still Europe? Apparently so.
Anyway, the draw means that the possibility of an all-English final on 15 May remains very much alive. In a season where our teams have flopped in the Champions League that would be a big boost to the domestic game, but the likes of Basel, Lazio and Benfica might have something to say about that first.