Eto'o opportunism earns Chelsea win over Schalke

Posted by Phil Lythell

Jose Mourinho will have been glad to see his Chelsea team return to winning ways after they eased to a 3-0 victory over Schalke 04 in the Champions League.

- Brewin: Three things: Chelsea vs. Schalke
- Report: Chelsea 3-0 Schalke

The weekend defeat at Newcastle had set tongues wagging over the true quality of Chelsea's potential to contest for the big trophies and their ability to compete at a consistent level. For that reason, Wednesday night's display will restore some confidence in a side whose pride had been pricked at St James' Park. The result also gives the Londoners full control of Group E -- having now won back-to-back games against the team that had been labeled as their biggest threat -- coupled with Basel's home draw against Steaua Bucharest. A point in Switzerland in three weeks' time will guarantee qualification, while a win will ensure that the Blues top the group and are seeded in the first knockout round.

While the scoreline was positive and the latter stages were negotiated with the result beyond doubt, Chelsea's advantage owed much to good fortune. The dithering of Schalke goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand was exploited by the effervescent Samuel Eto'o on the half-hour mark with the custodian striking his routine clearance against the Cameroonian's legs and the ball ricocheting into an empty net. Such quirky goals are a rare sight, yet that is not the first time such an oddity has been seen on this ground. In 1995, Chelsea faced Real Zaragoza in the semifinal of the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup, and during the second leg, with the Blues chasing a 3-0 deficit from the first game, Paul Furlong's backside was the recipient of some errant distribution from the Spanish stopper that night. Furlong's résumé might have little in common with Eto'o's glittering, trophy-laden career, but at Stamford Bridge, they share the same bizarre accolade.

The timing of the goal could not have been better for Chelsea or more unfortunate for the visitors, seeing as it was the Bundesliga side who had looked by far the most threatening in the opening exchanges. There were shades of the display at Newcastle until that point with a lethargy encompassing the Blues from the kickoff. Indeed, they can count themselves fortunate not to have been chasing the game with Schalke missing three presentable chances to take the lead. The highly vaunted young German Julian Draxler outshone his opposite number, Oscar, during that period by finding pockets of space and distributing the ball incisively towards attacking positions. Had it not been for Eto'o's opportunism, the match could have been far more uncomfortable for the Blues. On such small margins can results and the fate of those participating swing.

That Chelsea were able to see out the rest of the game from that point on without too much alarm is a testament to their professionalism and pedigree on this stage, rather than any flourishing patterns of play. As in the game in Gelsenkirchen a fortnight ago, Schalke showed the energy while Chelsea exhibited the cutting edge. The contrast in resources was also telling given that Mourinho was able to introduce the experience of Frank Lampard from the bench who then almost immediately made a telling contribution with his neat flick setting up fellow substitute Demba Ba for his goal, the third of the night. However, Schalke can point to the future with their own impressive replacement Max Meyer -- whom, at 18, is half Lampard's age -- coming on for the last quarter of the match to give the Blues' defence something serious to ponder.

At the other end of the spectrum, Eto'o will feel that he has finally come of age in a Chelsea shirt. The ring-rust of his initial performances is slowly being sanded down with each subsequent appearance, revealing more of the striker that was once feared around Europe. While his first goal might have been the product of his industry, his second was dispatched with such clinical efficiency that memories of his halcyon days at Barcelona and Inter Milan came flooding back.

With Fernando Torres sidelined through injury, it was comforting to see a Chelsea striker stepping into his shoes with such ruthlessness, and, by the same token, Ba can also be pleased with his night's work. Brought on as a replacement for Eto'o with 13 minutes left on the clock, Ba offered a more physical presence yet took his goal with aplomb. The Senegalese seems to only score the acrobatic, with his swiveled volley reminiscent of his FA Cup semifinal strike against Manchester City last season and his sublime finish against Manchester United earlier in the competition. It wasn't too long ago that many were questioning Chelsea's misfiring strikers, but now that all three are hitting the back of the net, the doubts are starting to dissipate.

Although less associated with the glamorous side of the game, a special mention has to made about Cesar Azpilicueta. With Ashley Cole rested and Ryan Bertrand injured, the Spaniard stepped into the left-back role and acquitted himself brilliantly. His sound positional nous and his tireless work rate means that his preference for the right side of defence is rendered obsolete, and he will have caught the eye of his manager, who values endeavour and versatility as much as the ability to pick out the top corner of the net. His lack of game time has not blunted his enthusiasm, and his attitude, as well as talent, cannot be praised highly enough.

Chelsea's performance was hardly vintage and Mourinho will have much to analyse, particularly in the opening 30 minutes of the contest. But, ultimately, the mission was accomplished and the opportunity is there to put the group stage to bed with one match day remaining.
Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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