Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Moses leads Chelsea to undeserved relief
John Brewin, Stamford Bridge
That money changes everything in football becomes more and more apparent as the years go on. Yet petrodollars can never dim the game's ability to throw up a last-minute denouement that confounds what had happened in the previous 90 minutes.
• Di Matteo: We deserved to win
• Chelsea 3-2 Shakhtar Donetsk
There is also no substitute for experience. As Petr Cech, on the halfway line, urged his team-mates forward for one last push, he knew Chelsea were in Champions League danger. A Victor Moses header from a Juan Mata corner later, the Blues had wrested their destiny back into their own hands. Somehow, after being dominated by a growing force from the East, Chelsea were victors.
A game that embraced football's modernity in being between two clubs owned by oligarchs, this was a battle between 50th and 39th in the Forbes Rich List. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, is almost $7 billion clear of Roman Abramovich, but is behind him in footballing achievement. Akhmetov was seconds away from being able to boast of a better head-to-head record than Abramovich - who may well have had other matters on his mind had that proved to be the case.
Roberto Di Matteo was the coach who gave the Chelsea owner his heart's desire in May and, after some deliberation, was awarded the job full-time in June. The phrase 'on a permanent basis' is not applicable in Roman's regime, and Di Matteo found himself under threat of becoming the first coach to win the Champions League and then go out in the following season's group stages. Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas were sacked for far less.
Di Matteo is a man ever living on the brink. Had it not been for a last-minute penalty in the League Cup game with Manchester United, 'RDM' would have been four games without a win, a slump requiring rapid arrest - especially in this competition. Last season, he was Pep Guardiola's nemesis in the Champions League, but now the roles are reversed: unless, that is, Guardiola is swayed by the gathering of a Barca old boys' club at Manchester City.
Di Matteo's job prospects looked bleaker than ever as he was hit by key absences. John Terry's four-match ban is at an end but he was only a sub here, his shuttle runs down the touchline bringing rare applause on what was an angry night at the Bridge. Ashley Cole's injury meant Ryan Bertrand was exposed, and that almost proved fatal. Frank Lampard's steadiness was missed in midfield, but Chelsea got away with it. Just.
"We deserved to win, because we did a lot of good things, because we put them under pressure, especially in the first half," Di Matteo said. "I think we deserved to win, ultimately."
"If they won, maybe they deserve to win, but we dominated the match," said a visibly flat but philosophical Mircea Lucescu.
Just as unconvincing as the Chelsea coach's summary of the game was Abramovich's ultimate luxury signing. Fernando Torres may have been awarded the Euro 2012 Golden Boot in pre-match by none other than Kerry Dixon - John Bumstead presumed unavailable - but his club form is such that Chelsea are expected to swoop for another striker in the January transfer window and the Spaniard's future looks uncertain. Shakhtar's Willian was once a Chelsea target, and will almost certainly be again. Perhaps the oligarchs might fancy a swap - though Abramovich would get by far the better deal on this evidence.
Panicky beginnings for Chelsea were soothed when Torres, having previously looked slow to react to a pearl of a cross from Oscar, seized on a mix-up between Yaroslav Rakitsky and keeper Andriy Pyatov. That the ball bounced off Torres rather than him being required to show off his grasp of the striking art was a reminder of the footballing adage that they all count.
Torres' fading cachet was not helped by Willian swiftly showing why he is so coveted by equalising. Fernandinho skinned Bertrand on the right, and his centred pass found Willian, who finished with consummate cool.
Shakhtar's Brazilian contingent created problems throughout. Alex Texeira, Adriano, Willian and Fernandino played the type of football Chelsea expect from their twinkling trio of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata. Bertrand struggled, while David Luiz and Gary Cahill found Shakhtar's interchangeable forward line hugely difficult to pick up.
Lucescu has been around the block more than a few times, and his time at Shakhtar, where he has been since 2004, has seen him build teams that bewitch. Fulham fans still say the Shakhtar team they played in their 2010 UEFA Cup run was the best the Cottagers have faced. Shakhtar were holders then, their 2009 triumph being the proudest moment in their club's history and Lucescu's career - but winning a Champions League group containing both the holders and a Juventus side who had gone the previous season unbeaten would have come a close second.
Close was as good as it got. Three times, Chelsea hit a team clearly winning on points with a sucker punch. Oscar, from 35 yards, soothed a Stamford Bridge that had quaked with unease when Pyatov's second unconvincing clearance of the night granted him the chance to better the effort against Juventus with which he had announced himself. He delivered, taking his team into an unlikely half-time lead that lasted for just two minutes of the second period.
Shakhtar's second equaliser came via the same route as their first, though Dario Srna joined the party when Fernandinho's slide-rule pass found Bertrand again outwitted. Willian, for the second time, scored when a host of Chelsea players seemed to be blocking his path to goal.
It was the least the Ukrainians deserved, and they exerted further dominance from then on. Chelsea's home became a Bridge of sighs as the visitors played the type of total football another team in orange had once made famous. Willian and Fernandinho were to be found in all areas of the pitch in a formation that one estimate had as a 2-3-2-2-1.
As tension took hold, there were isolated chants of 'champions' - but Chelsea's grip on their most prized possession was loose at best. Juventus' lead against FC Nordsaelland meant there were furtive glances at Chelsea's next fixture, a visit to Turin to play a Bianconeri team that had been unlucky not to win in West London.
Growing tetchiness became a sense of injustice when John Mikel Obi was denied a headed goal for offside. Ramires soon had a clear penalty turned down by a Spanish referee gaining Mark Clattenburg-like popularity. A sense of desperation filled the air, but undeserved despair would soon lie with Shakhtar. The relief was all Chelsea's.