Torres books quarter-final berth as Rafa has last laugh

Posted by Dominic Raynor

A potential fixture pile up of three games in six days over Easter and the fact that besieged interim manager Rafael Benitez dared show a sense of humour to joke that he'd probably get the blame for that, too, dominated the headlines before Chelsea's second-leg Europa League clash with Steaua Bucharest.

- Torres sends Chelsea through
- Cech expected to progress
- Video: Chelsea 3-1 Bucuresti (UK & Ireland)

"They will say it's my fault, because everything is my fault," Benitez joked (or "mocked the fans" depending on what newspaper you read). The fact is, of course, that it is Benitez's fault. Fixtures only pile up for teams that are successful, so credit for the Blues' accomplishments must go the Spaniard, however begrudgingly by some.

And Chelsea's stop-start 3-1 win over Bucharest at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night ensured that fixture pile up will happen.

First up will be a Premier League clash with Southampton on March 30 when the Blues can shore up their place in the top four, followed by an FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United. Then comes the Europa League tie on April 4 against the likes of Benfica, Lazio or whoever comes out of the hat in Friday's draw.

Suddenly, Rafa's tenure doesn't seem quite so unpalatable. And that's no joke.

It's not all sweetness and light, though. On Thursday, the Blues began with an attacking lineup and a swagger carried over from their swashbuckling FA Cup fight back against Manchester United. But their step was quickly checked when returning skipper John Terry, rested for the game at Old Trafford, failed in an attempt to nip in ahead of Alexandru Chipciu to steal the ball. Chipciu set Raul Rusescu, scorer of the only goal in the first leg, racing clean through and only a great save from Petr Cech denied the striker.

Scrappy was the term to describe what followed. Out of nowhere came a goal for the home side as Juan Mata burst forward and latched onto a misplaced pass from Ramires before his scuffed shot hit the goalkeeper and trickled over the line. Scrappier still was Chelsea's hybrid zonal/man-marking system that left Vlad Chiriches free to poke the ball home for Steaua's contender for scrappiest moment of the match after a game of pinball broke out in the Chelsea box.

At 1-1 on the stroke of halftime, it left Chelsea needing to score twice and that looked unlikely. But after the break -- and a few presumably wise words from Rafa -- there was nothing shoddy about Mata's deadball delivery to pick out Terry's run and unerring header to make it 2-1.

And then it happened. The Fernando Torres of old showed up. Receiving the ball in the box, he manufactured a yard of space under the watch of defender Lukas Szukala and swept a low shot into the far corner, past the despairing dive of goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu. Stamford Bridge erupted. At 3-1 Chelsea were going through, but Torres, who has scored just two goals in his previous 19 matches, wasn't finished.

The striker, who played his best football under Benitez at Liverpool, tested and teased the Steau defence and when, late on, Chelsea won a penalty, up stepped Torres to mark his long-awaited return to form. A shrug of the shoulders, a swipe of the boot and then an all-too-familiar look to the heavens as his effort smacked against the bar. The old Torres returned.

Still, it was another win for Benitez's Blues and while his potential replacement Guus Hiddink was crashing out of the Europe League as Newcastle beat big-spending Anzhi the interim boss marched on.

And maybe, just maybe, if he can do the seemingly impossible and add an in-form Fernando Torres to two potential cups wins and Champions League qualification they'll let him stay on.

Twitter: @DomRaynorESPN

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