Hazard rides to rescue against Sparta

Posted by Phil Lythell

What Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Sparta Prague Thursday lacked in quality, it certainly made up for with drama.

There is nothing in football quite like a last-minute winner – or in this case, a last-millisecond winner – and it made all the suffering that preceded it worthwhile. Eden Hazard's wonderful strike ensures the paying punters did not have to endure a nervy period of extra-time and the possibility of penalties in what was a bitterly cold night at Stamford Bridge. The thrilling finish saw warming cups of Bovril become airborne in celebration as passage through to a date with Ajax in the next round of the Europa League was assured.

-- Hazard puts Blues through
-- Delaney: Lesson learned

Of course, it is always pleasurable to see your team stroll into to a comfortable half-time lead and then manage the rest of the game in a relaxed professional manner, yet the frenetic nature of this cup tie created an atmosphere of tension that gave the contest more gravitas than the majority of Chelsea fans would have anticipated prior to kickoff.

Chelsea might have dominated the second half and ultimately ended it victorious -- at least on aggregate -- but it could easily have been the Czechs who were going home the happier team had Vaclav Kadlec not spurned a glorious chance to settle it moments before Hazard's decisive contribution.

The Belgian might have only been involved for 22 minutes, but it was enough to make him the outstanding player on the pitch. For all the endeavour and guile of Juan Mata, Chelsea struggled to carve out many good chances and it wasn't until Hazard's introduction that the Blues looked to have a real goal threat.

He was a blur of quick feet, close control and darting movement as he constantly bamboozled the Sparta fullbacks. He gave Chelsea desperately needed incision to compliment the enormous amount of possession that the team enjoyed in the second half without testing Tomas Vaclik in the visitors' goal as often as the Blues would have liked.

The most obvious element that Hazard provided -- apart from the goal -- was genuine width. The deployment of both Mata and Oscar meant two of the three attacking midfielders selected by Rafael Benitez were both inclined to cut inside to look for options. The presence of Victor Moses should have helped to stretch the opposition; while that avenue was prosperous in the first half, it all but evaporated in the second.

On too many occasions the home side opted to probe a central channel only to find a morass of players in both red and blue blocking the route to goal. It was screaming out for somebody to hug the whitewash, yet Benitez appeared to be instructing Moses from the sidelines to tuck in alongside Fernando Torres whenever his team were on the front foot.

The lack of width in forward positions is affecting the defence as well as the attack. The floating nature of Chelsea's forward-facing midfielders means that there is little in the way of defensive shape when the ball is lost. Opposing teams have been able to counter-attack with efficiency due to holding players being over-run in the middle of the park, thus exposing the back four.

Those troubling issues aside, the spectators could have been spared the dramatic finish had Chelsea fielded a striker who had even the slightest notion of where the goal is. Torres had one of those days to which the club's supporters have become horribly familiar.

He helped to create his first effort on goal with a neat layoff before seeing his sidefoot shot creep just past the far post, but sympathy was in short supply for the rest of his display. The Spaniard got his feet in muddle to put the ball over the crossbar following an excellent cross from Mata, then missed a header from point-blank range with the goal gaping.

The second half saw the forward retreat back into his shell. He was given a chance to redeem himself when he found himself alone with the ball and bearing down on the goalkeeper. Unfortunately for Torres, Vaclik stood his ground and Torres' clipped finish was pushed away when the ball really should have been nestling in the back of the net.

Thankfully, Hazard was soon alongside him to spare his blushes with a quite stunning individual effort, and the punters will have gone home with that at the forefront of their minds rather than the frustrating night full of missed chances that it had been for so long.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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