Chelsea revert to type in Champions League

Posted by Phil Lythell

There are times when the performance is the most important aspect of a football match. There are others where it is the result that is paramount. Tonight at Stamford Bridge it was most definitely the latter.

Thankfully so because the display by Roberto Di Matteo’s team against Shakhtar Donetsk was not much to write home about. Passing was slack, defensive organization was sloppy but those infractions were deemed all but irrelevant when Victor Moses headed home in the very last second of injury time.

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Chelsea have created an image for themselves in the Champions League: eschew aesthetics for the bigger picture. Doggedness, endeavour and a refusal to be cowed were the hallmarks of the historic march to the European Cup last season and are traits that should not be scoffed at easily. The latest incarnation of Roman Abramovich’s assembled wealth is trying to achieve the same goal but with a more pleasing, flambuoyant signature. However, it is not always that simple especially when playing against such a well-drilled team as the one that landed in West London on Wednesday.

As Frank Lampard said after that night in Munich, there is a beauty in digging out results and while Chelsea’s performance in the last gasp 3-2 win against the Ukrainian champions might not gain too many plaudits from the purists, the determination to extract a vital three points from a testing fixture with the clock ticking down has to be applauded. A draw would have been a fair result but thankfully a match is not decided on artistic impression but on goals scored.

Over the two encounters Shakhtar have provided the perfect template for Di Matteo to follow. The essential system and set-up are nearly identical to that deployed by the Italian but the execution is markedly different. That seems to be borne out of familiarity with Mircea Lucescu’s men reaping the benefits of having played together for a number of seasons. The likes of Willian and Fernandinho – a kind of enhanced John Obi Mikel – have developed an instinctive awareness of each other’s game and as a result are able to play blind passes with the assurance that the ball will find its way to the intended recipient.

Chelsea’s team are still learning to play with each other and were shown the path to follow by their eastern European opponents. Given the talent within the team I fully expect them to evolve to an even greater standard but tonight at times they played the part of wide-eyed pupils which makes the victory all the more valuable.

What the Blues should not try to emulate is Shakhtar’s direction in the final third. Where the orange clad folk were hell-bent on getting to the byline before attempting to manufacture a shooting opportunity, Chelsea showed a more clinical edge. That was demonstrated in its most exquisite form by Oscar’s sensational goal from fully 40 yards after he pounced on an errant clearance from Andriy Pyatov to give Chelsea a fortunate lead before half-time.

Despite the five goals, there were few genuine goal-scoring opportunities in the match. For all Shakhtar’s clever interplay, Petr Cech was rarely tested although the woodwork was struck and it was Pyatov who was the most central to proceedings of the two goalkeepers even if he was not extended regualrly.

But to reiterate, performance was secondary. Three points for Chelsea was all that mattered going into what will be an even more decisive fixture against Juventus in Turin. A win and the Blues are into the knockout stages while a draw will almost certainly be enough.

Chelsea are used to doing it the hard way in the Champions League. It looks like they will have to do it once more.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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