Chelsea 1-1 Sparta Prague (agg: 2-1)

Value to be had from shaky Bridge outing

February 21, 2013
By Miguel Delaney, Stamford Bridge

In the end, it was a winning goal that barely suited the game or Chelsea's display. In fact, almost nothing about this match suggested a finish of such immense quality from Eden Hazard; certainly not the poverty of the home side's display, the chances they squandered nor the manner in which a hugely impressive Sparta Prague almost stole it late on.

Fernando Torres stretch shot
APFernando Torres: Might he find his scoring touch during a busy fixture schedule?

As their manager Vitezslav Lavicka argued afterwards, the Czech side would have been deserving qualifiers for a last-16 tie against Steaua Bucharest. Instead, Hazard stole that chance with an effort of stunning quality. Taking matters into his own hands he blazed into the box before sending a shot bursting into the roof of the net. And, as an attacker who used to similarly light up these parts used to say, it's a funny old game.

There is an argument that the Chelsea team - if not quite the persistently perturbed supporters - will gain more out of such a win than they would have a routine 3-0 victory. Sure, in the event of such a formality, Chelsea would have been able to keep the ball and conserve energy. But it wouldn't exactly have energised the club. Since such a performance would have been entirely expected, though, it wouldn't have done anything to alter the generally suppressed mood around Stamford Bridge.

• Lythell: Hazard rides to rescue against Sparta

It would only have taken another mis-step or mistake to bring forth the unrest of the crowd. Of course, that was exactly the case on the night. As Chelsea struggled to open Sparta up properly, the crowd booed when Benitez decided to take off a forward in Oscar - rather than, say, a more defensive player - for Hazard.

But, if it's now a given that the Spaniard will never manage to win the supporters around, the momentum and mental boost wrought from such a rousing finish and victory may well help unite and galvanise the team for the end of the season.

To a certain degree, Benitez agreed. He said: "It's not a bad point. I'd prefer to score two goals and be more relaxed in the game, but in terms of the confidence and belief of the team, it's quite positive. You can have the belief that you can still always get a result."

As has been proven by many teams in the past, the resilience derived from victories of that manner can help overcome a variety of errors. Goodness knows Chelsea have them and need such an effect. Because, ultimately, Hazard's winner covered a multitude of issues and problems.

For one, there was the manner in which David Lafata plundered the shock opening goal. Then, there was the general flatness and lack of cohesion in the attack. Although there were a few impressive moves, the majority of Chelsea's breaks and chances came through industry and force rather than innovation or finesse. A telling moment came towards the end of the game when Juan Mata had a free-kick charged down only to immediately hare after it and try and just push the ball through.

David Lafata celeb v Chelsea
APDavid Lafata silenced Stamford Bridge as he broke the deadlock

On the occasions Chelsea did that, though, Fernando Torres gave one of his worst displays of finishing since arriving at the club. The regression was such that a round of new questions were asked about the forward's situation. But Benitez stuck to some old answers.

"We could be talking about Fernando not scoring goals, and he had four chances," the interim manager said. "But he had four chances. Let's turn it into a positive. I've seen him in games not having these chances because he's not in the right position. Today the goalkeeper stopped him and he missed some, but he did a good job for the team, was in the right position. It wasn't the situation where the striker disappeared. He was in the right place at the right time.

"Are we disappointed he didn't score? Yes, we are. But he was still giving his all to the team. If he continues working like today and playing like he did today, he will score goals. I'm convinced about that."

Those comments, however, still have to be put in the context of the fact Benitez was also claiming Chelsea played well.

"We had 22 attempts and clear chances," he added. "We didn't score until the end, but we had 60% of the possession and did well. When you add all of that together... We made two or three mistakes and gave them opportunities to counter, but we still did enough to deserve to go through."

Of course, that only came after Benitez's initially unpopular decision. He said: "It was not easy to pick anyone to come off. We decided Oscar because Victor [Moses] could give us width on the right and Hazard on the left. They were playing deep, so we wanted to stretch them. Hazard has quality and ability and could make the difference in the end."

That was certainly the case. The long-term question, though, is what sort of difference it will have for the mentality of this squad.