Chelsea's paper over cracks with win at Sparta

Posted by Phil Lythell

Michal SulaOscar's late strike was the lone highlight in an otherwise forgettable affair between Chelsea and Sparta Prague.

In a match that saw the overplayed face the undercooked, Chelsea scraped past Sparta Prague in an instantly forgettable opening leg of their UEFA Europa League tie.

Oscar's moment of genius eight minutes from time was the sole example of quality in the entire 90 minutes though thankfully it tips the odds heavily towards the Blues progressing to the last 16 of the tournament. Whether too many neutrals will bother watching the return match next Thursday given the dreadful fare served up in the Czech Republic is another question.

- Benitez: Chelsea must be more clinical
- Match report: Sparta Prague 0-1 Chelsea

The first 15 minutes aside, the reigning European Champions looked exactly like a team that had played north of 40 competitive fixtures already this season with lethargy and predictability both evident in equal measure. Sparta's excuse for such a blunt and disjointed display was that this was their first meaningful game since their winter break began in early December. Chelsea's lack of enthusiasm coupled with Sparta's rustiness resulted in a truly horrible contest that should be forgotten as quickly as possible lest it should taint our image of the beautiful game.

From the Premier League side, there was little in the way of energy despite the presence of the usually effervescent duo of Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, with neither having much influence on the shape of the match. The two tricksters saw little of the ball and did not seem too bothered about looking for it either meaning that Chelsea were left with guileless pragmatism rather than wizardry and wonder.

One player who was at the heart of the action while he was on was the field was Marko Marin and his display perfectly encapsulated the Chelsea performance as a whole. The German looked bright and pro-active in the opening exchanges hinting that this might be the turning point in his nascent Blues career and also putting his side in the driving seat early on in this tie. But just like the rest of the team, his progress soon spluttered to a halt as he continually drove down blind alleys or illustrated a worryingly poor first touch to close the door on potential goalscoring chances almost as soon as they had been glimpsed.

However, Marin was far from being the only player to perform well below the standard expected. Indeed it is hard to think of anyone who could genuinely claim to have put in a solid, encouraging performance. Possibly Cesar Azpilicueta, though it feels like clutching at straws. Fernando Torres repeated his trick of following up taking one step forward by leaping five steps backward, so anonymous was his effort. His lack of movement ensured that on the two occasions when the ball was delivered expertly into the six yard box he was nowhere to be seen and the less said about his snapshot that was so wildly off target that it resulted in a corner for the home side the better.

The most concerning aspect of the match was the fact that a Sparta team that was clearly off the pace managed to cause Chelsea quite a few problems. In the first half, especially, they were able to create chances inside the Blues' penalty area without having to actually do very much. Not for the first time in the last six weeks, Ramires and Frank Lampard were given the run around when the Czechs had the ball, though in truth they were offered no support from the four attacking players in front of them; Mata, Hazard, Torres and Marin choosing to do as little work in defence as they contributed in attack. Ryan Bertrand was underwhelming once more and neither Gary Cahill nor Branislav Ivanovic offered the penalty box dominance that you demand in a centre back.

Any Brentford players that might have been watching the match will have been buoyed ahead of their FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. The Bees were a constant menace at Griffin Park and will be encouraged to adopt the same mindset given Chelsea's current malaise. The Blues will understandably be heavy favourites to come through the encounter though their supporters are currently trudging to every match without the faintest clue as to what the outcome is going to be.

With so much negativity it is almost extraordinary to think that Chelsea did actually beat Sparta Prague and are almost assured passage into the next round of the Europa League. It is certainly a good thing and in this ailing season anything positive that can be held on to should not be sniffed at.

The problem is that these displays merely paper over the cracks and until those gaps can be permanently plugged they will continue to fracture ever wider.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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