Revitalized Chelsea set to rule in Romania

Posted by Mark Worrall

When the draw was made for the Champions League's group stages, Chelsea were viewed as having a very favourable opportunity to progress to the knockout round as winners of Group E, which matched them with FC Basel, Schalke 04 and Tuesday night’s opponents, Steaua Bucharest.

However, Chelsea's surprising 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Basel on Matchday 1 has changed the complexion of the group, and Jose Mourinho takes his Blues side to the Romanian capital knowing victory is paramount to get Chelsea’s campaign back on track.

As with Basel, Steaua provide the Blues with familiar opposition from last season’s Europa League, the sides having met at the last-32 stage of the competition, which Chelsea won. Despite losing 1-0 in Bucharest, Blues interim manager Rafa Benitez steered the London club to a 3-2 aggregate victory. This time around, with group points at stake, defeat for Mourinho’s charges would make qualification an uphill struggle and leave the Portuguese open to the criticism he faced following the loss to Basel.

- Mou: Terry in line for new deal
- Chelsea drops De Bruyne
- Torres faces 4-match ban

Against the Swiss champions, Mourinho had fielded a starting XI which on paper should have cruised to victory. Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Frank Lampard, Oscar, Marco Van Ginkel, Eden Hazard, Willian and Samuel Eto’o had the capability and experience between them to do a job for Mourinho, but the team looked disjointed and failed to defend a first-half lead provided by Oscar.

At that time, the Special One was still at loggerheads with Juan Mata, benching him and indicating that the so-called Neglected One needed to improve his all-round game -- an observation that put him at odds with the majority of Chelsea supporters. Furthermore, against Basel, there had been no place in Mourinho's squad for Mata’s Spanish compatriot Fernando Torres, with summer acquisition Eto’o preferred up front.

The defeat against Basel, coming as it did after Chelsea’s loss to Everton in the Premier League, stirred Mourinho into action. In the three games that have followed, the Blues have looked a different proposition altogether, with Mourinho restoring Mata and Torres to his starting XI for last week’s League Cup tie stroll at Swindon and retaining them for Saturday's fractious derby with Tottenham Hotspur.

Against Spurs, Mata looked back to his best, his link-up play with a revitalized Torres a joy to watch. Significantly, the Blues lineup at White Hart Lane had a familiar look to it, so much so it could have been a starting XI from 12 months ago. Knowing that defeat at Spurs would represent disaster, Mourinho opted to field a team that knew the fixture well and that could cope with the pressure.

Tuesday's match carries the same expectation, and with this in mind we can expect more of the same.

In defence, Cahill may be preferred to one of Terry or Luiz, while farther forward the Special One will take no chances. With the unfortunate Marco Van Ginkel out for the season, the midfield engine room will feature two of John Obi Mikel, Ramires or Lampard, and it’s difficult to see beyond Hazard, Oscar and Mata as the creative three, particularly given the fact that Kevin De Bruyne has been exiled to train with the Blues Under-21 squad, and 32 million-pound acquisition Willian looked decidedly average in the 90-minute workout afforded him at Swindon.

Following his highly competitive performance at Spurs, it is almost certain Torres will lead Chelsea’s line. The Spaniard’s unfortunate dismissal in that game, and his automatic suspension for the Blues forthcoming visit to Norwich, render his inclusion a near-certainty given Eto’o’s lack of form and Mourinho’s reluctance to utilize Demba Ba. Andre Schurrle is another option, but Mourinho may well opt to play the German forward at Carrow Road.

While the Special One has had his problems balancing the creativity and technical ability of his squad, and results haven’t quite gone as planned so far this season, his opposite number at Steaua has, at face value, had little to worry about in that department. Laurentiu Reghecampf and the Romanian champions are off to an unbeaten start to their domestic league campaign, scoring 19 goals in seven games.

But worryingly for Reghecampf, Steaua were beaten 3-0 by Schalke 04 on Champions League Matchday 1, a result that perhaps highlighted the gulf in class between Romanian Liga 1 and the Champions League. Furthermore, since last season’s victory over Chelsea in the Arena Nationala, Steaua sold their two best players, top scorer Raul Rusescu and centre-back Vlad Chiriches.

The events of the past few weeks will have eliminated any possible complacency in the Chelsea camp, a factor that should give the Blues the edge. Couple this with the old-school will-to-win mentality displayed in the second half against Spurs, and Mourinho’s men should prevail. It won’t be pretty, but nobody who follows Chelsea’s fortunes will complain as long as the end justifies the means.

Follow Mark on Twitter @gate17marco


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