Last-gasp Luiz puts Chelsea in sight of Europa League final

Posted by Phil Lythell

As the clock ticked down on Chelsea's Europa League semifinal first leg at FC Basel Thursday, it looked like being the same old story.

A match largely dominated by the European champions was not killed off, early which left the door open for another catastrophic refereeing decision to allow their opponents to score a late goal. That was until David Luiz stepped up and set the record straight with the last kick of the game to give the Blues a deserved 2-1 victory.

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The Luiz winner aside, that scenario was developing from the moment that Fernando Torres struck the upright with the goal gaping midway through the second half as Chelsea began to retreat deeper and deeper in a bid to protect the 1-0 lead they held. Basel may not have offered much of a threat, but the Londoners defending in the closing stages of matches has been one of the main obstacles to their season; the lack of composure and security when in possession of a slender lead has undermined the team's bid for success all campaign.

That nervous situation could have been averted this time, however, had Chelsea been able to take just a fraction of their array of chances. Besides Torres hitting the post, Eden Hazard should have done better with a couple of openings and Ramires was unlucky to see Yann Sommer in the Basel goal in such imperious form -- at least until the deciding goal.

Even after the equaliser, John Terry was denied by a stunning reflex save while Torres, Juan Mata and Oscar all spurned chances to win the game prior to Luiz's intervention. The lack of a killer instinct has been another major hindrance.

Another signature of this season has been the dreadful standard of officiating, and for the third time in four matches Chelsea were once again the victim of an abysmal decision. It would be interesting to know what referee Pavel Kralovec thought he saw when Cesar Azpilicueta held firm against Valentin Stocker's attempts to get on the end of a cross, as not even the supposedly impeded player appealed for a spot kick.

Thankfully, the Blues rallied in the last few minutes to create a series of chances, the last of which found the back of the net.

In truth, Luiz was probably a bit lucky to have still been on the pitch when he was booked for a challenge that could easily have seen him dismissed on another day. Perhaps the man in the middle was determined to keep all 22 men on the pitch seeing as he had earlier only produced a yellow card for Aleksandar Dragovic's two-footed lunge on Torres.

Moving away from the daily refereeing debate, it has to be pointed out that Rafael Benitez got his tactics and team selection spot on, not something many Chelsea fans have stated this season. Ashley Cole's adventure was intentionally curbed to counter the lightning pace of Mohamed Salah, with Azpilicueta being only marginally more forward thinking on the other flank.

With Luiz pushed into midfield and stationed ahead of Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry at centre back, the unit formed a cohesive defensive block that neutralised the Basel attack and restricted them to a few half-chances. It was not necessarily the most ambitious approach but it was intelligent in the circumstances.

It was also very bold to leave both Mata and Oscar out of the starting line-up, though it did afford Hazard the freedom to dictate the attacking forays which he did excellently. Ramires and Victor Moses filled the wide areas which gave the side both directness and added defensive insurance.

Moses was especially impressive, and not just due to the fact that he got on the scoresheet. His use of the ball at St Jakob-Park was far better than he has displayed in recent weeks and he showed a willingness to attack the outside of defenders, an instinct lacking in all his team mates bar Hazard. A player whose season was fizzling has given everyone a timely reminder of what he has to offer the club.

With one swish of his right foot, Luiz turned a frustrating contentious evening in to one filled with hope and expectation. Taking a 2-1 lead back to Stamford Bridge is an almost perfect way to end the first leg and Chelsea must now be red-hot favourites to make the final in Amsterdam on May 15.

It is not quite time to start booking flights and hotels, though. When Chelsea emerged from the first leg of their 2009 Champions League quarter-final at Anfield with a 3-1 win, the return match was expected to be a formality. What followed was a permanently ebbing and flowing 4-4 draw in which Liverpool came uncomfortably close to a sensational comeback victory.

Amsterdam is in sight but Chelsea are not there yet.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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