Lifeless Chelsea stumble against Steaua

Posted by Phil Lythell

One of the many trials of being a football fan is that you have to endure whatever garbage your team churns out and accept it as part of the emotional contract you have drawn up with your club. You must persist through the torture, unable to leave your seat for an early train home or switch the channel on your television to escape from the drudgery.

The mind-numbing dross that Chelsea served up in the 1-0 defeat at Steaua Bucharest was one of these occasions and it was the third such display out of three UEFA Europa League outings so far. At least in each of the two encounters with Sparta Prague there was a genuine moment that made you leap out of your seat with Oscars' wizardry in the Czech Republic then superseded by Eden Hazard's wonderful late strike back in West London. In Romania there was nothing to write home about with any fondness.

- Match report: Steaua 1-0 Chelsea

This succession of lacklustre displays calls into the question both the desire of the players to win this competition -- irrespective of David Luiz's insistence of his 'hunger' in the pre-match press-conference -- and the tactical credentials of Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard made his name in England through a series of impressive European campaigns with Liverpool that yielded a host of appearances in the semifinal of the Champions League. He managed to win two of those to make the final itself of which one was won in dramatic, if incredibly fortuitous, circumstances in 2005.

With little in the way of domestic success, Europe was the reason he stayed on Merseyside for so long and it had been hoped that he might be able to impart some wisdom to his new charges at Chelsea as they seek to win a second consecutive European trophy. If he has, then either the players are not listening or the formula is now inert. Both in Prague and Bucharest the message appears to have been to sit deep, allow opponents plenty of possession, close down the space if you feel like it and hope that a long hopeful punt could somehow unlock the opposition defence -- presuming, of course, that Fernando Torres has any idea where the goal is.

There is nothing wrong with soaking up pressure to gain a foothold in the game away from home but that tactic is generally employed when facing a team that has the capacity to cause you genuine problems from a number of different areas and terraces brimming with ferment. The National Arena in Bucharest is an impressive stadium filled with passionate fans but it is not the Bernabeu, Camp Nou, San Siro nor even Celtic Park. Neither are Steaua the equals of Barcelona. Chelsea should have been looking to impose themselves on proceedings using their superior individual ability to create a powerful and dynamic team performance. Although their star might have waned a little in England, the Blues are still regarded as the champions of Europe and therefore should carry an aura with them when travelling around the continent. Instead, the team looks meek and impotent at best, disinterested and apathetic at worst. That is no way to repay the hundreds of fans that have spent a small fortune to make the long trip to Romania.

There were spells in the game such as in the immediate aftermath of falling behind, when Chelsea did attempt to up the tempo. Unfortunately, the previous slumber was so enveloping that any adventurous play often left player's isolated in possession with teammates not on the same wavelength.

With so few individuals playing to anywhere near their best, it would be pointless to lay the blame solely with one or two of them though there was one selection that raised more than a few eyebrows. The decision to play Yossi Benayoun instead of Marko Marin was unfathomable.

Of course, Marin has hardly set the world alight this season and has rarely shown the qualities that made him such a hot prospect when he burst onto the scene with Werder Bremen a few years ago, though injuries, lack of playing time and a new environment could go some way to explaining that. For a player to develop and become familiar with his teammates and the patterns of play, they need time on the pitch and this would have been an ideal situation for him to start a match. As it was, Benitez chose to deploy Benayoun who has been nothing short of woeful since West Ham sent him packing having decided that he wasn't even worth having around on loan. Factor in the reality that his contract expires in June and that he has no future at Chelsea -- and hence little motivation -- and the selection becomes even more baffling.

If Chelsea want to search for excuses they could point towards either the treacherous surface that undermined any attempts at one-touch passing or the relentless fixture list that is clearly draining the squad of energy as the season reaches its denouement. While there is validity in both, the truth is that Chelsea have not entered the pitch with the proper attitude or game plan to take control of any of their Europa League matches so far which begs the question: If this competition is not important, why are so many first team players involved?

The tie is far from over and the marginal threat from Steaua in the face of limp resistance from Chelsea means that the Blues should overturn the deficit comfortably should they choose to exert themselves from the first minute at Stamford Bridge next Thursday. At the very least it surely can't be as dull and lifeless as the first leg.

Or can it?

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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