Thursday 23 March 2017

Drogba helps Blues maintain Euro vision

Chelsea 3
Valencia 0

Henry Winter

Crisis? What crisis? Briefly fearful of the Europa League, Chelsea cruised into the knock-out stages of the Champions League last night, even winning Group E, so ensuring their avoid heavyweights like Barcelona in the last 16.

This was a good win for Chelsea and a great one for their oft-criticised manager, Andre Villas-Boas.

All his decisions were vindicated -- from omitting Frank Lampard to starting Didier Drogba -- who scored twice and made the other for Ramires. With Genk holding Bayer Leverkusen, Chelsea enjoyed a double delight on the night.

The headlines will scream about "AVB Teaching An Old Drog New Tricks" but others deserve equal mention in the inky and digital dispatches.

Villas-Boas threw a Spaniard in the Valencia works, Oriol Romeu disrupting the visitors' usually smooth rhythm.

Juan Mata was similarly good, creating Drogba's brace, causing constant pain to his old club. Even David Luiz, so often criticised for his walkabout tendencies, put in a disciplined performance. The new Chelsea had a good night. So did the old in Drogba and Petr Cech, who made three decent saves.

Tactics

If Chelsea were good, Valencia were disappointing. The third best team in La Liga never got going, never found their usually menacing stride, but that was much to do with Romeu, Ramires and company. And Villas-Boas getting his tactics right.

All the feeling of surprise at the team-sheet submitted by Villas-Boas had disappeared smartly. Chelsea began so positively.

Their 34-year-old manager had needed a nerve-free start, a vindication of his line-up. He had known how the critics were watching closely, debating his future.

Villas-Boas needed a strong start. He certainly got it. Scarcely had the home fans finished debating Frank Lampard's omission when his replacement, Raul Meireles, darted on to Drogba's lay-off and forced a save from Diego Alves. Scarcely had Fernando Torres settled into the dugout in front of Lampard before Drogba struck.

The goal was superbly created by Mata, such an outstanding signing from Valencia, who dribbled down the inside-left channel, turned and found Drogba.

There was still much to do, still a lock to be unpicked. Calmness personified, Drogba employed the minimum of back-lift in transferring the ball past Alves. The clock face showed three minutes. Villas-Boas' face showed relief.

Valencia showed intent. In good form recently, the Spaniards began demonstrating the class in their midst but struggled to break through. Jordi Alba advanced from the left side and almost snapped a goalpost in two.

Their captain, David Albelda, exploited some hesitant play from Chelsea, who backed off him, naively so, given his shooting ability. Albelda stepped into space and let fly, demanding a stretching save from Cech.

Valencia were enjoying plenty of possession but Chelsea weathered the storm, dispelling any doubts by doubling their advantage after 22 minutes.

Drogba took control of the situation, poacher turning goalmaker. His pass down the inside-left channel should have been simple for Victor Ruiz to cut out. Valencia's centre-back froze, allowing the quick-thinking Ramires to nip in and slip the ball past poor Alves. Victor Ruiz? Victor Meldrew would have moved quicker.

Valencia fans couldn't believe it, watching their usually confident side shredded. They still had the ball for substantial periods, almost two thirds in the first half, but Luiz was more Butcher than Barnum for once, meeting danger in determined, disciplined style. Alongside him, John Terry made some important aerial clearances, including one emphatic interception of Antonio Barragan's cross from the right.

Mata continued to sparkle, earning appreciative applause from his old team's supporters when addressing corners down by the Shed End. The Spanish international then conjured up a magnificent pass, sending Daniel Sturridge down the right. The young Englishman accelerated into the box but selected the wrong option. Not for the first time, Sturridge decided to shoot rather than pass.

Ignoring the unmarked Meireles speeding towards the far post, Sturridge went for glory at the near post. Alves saved. Wasted opportunity. Villas-Boas threw up his hands in frustration.

Yet there was still much for Chelsea's manager to enjoy, not least the composed anchoring of Romeu, nicking the ball off Jonas and Sofiane Feghouli in quick succession. Nobody can replace Claude Makelele, who was the master at breaking up attacks, but Romeu is a hugely promising apprentice.

Sturridge still has much to learn. Early in the second half, the England striker once again made the wrong call, attacking the near post when Mata was gliding through the middle.

The eye kept being drawn back to Drogba, who was rolling back the years, and rolling his marker, causing Valencia endless anxiety. He also assisted Chelsea defensively, making a couple of key headed clearances at corners.

Chelsea had still to be aware of Valencia's threat. Cech again impressed, diving to push away Feghouli's shot. Villas-Boas then made his first change, removing Ramires and sending on John Obi Mikel, who is not the first name on Chelsea fans' Christmas card list.

The criticism of Mikel is that he tends to slow Chelsea down, and can get caught in possession. Yet with Romeu shielding the back-four, Chelsea rarely looked fully troubled. They sat deep occasionally, needing to hit long to find Drogba.

Storming

In the 72nd minute, Drogba embarked on a storming run, all muscular endeavour, and he almost scored but dragged his shot wide.

He was then released again, this time by Sturridge, who played the perfect pass on this occasion. Drogba was frustrated this time but not for long. He scored a deserved second, Chelsea's third, from a terrific counter-attack.

Romeu began it, heading a loose ball accurately to Mata. The rest was a blur of blue, Mata sending Drogba through for a wonderfully calm finish. He soon departed to a standing ovation, having some warm words with Torres, his replacement. Drogba continued to the bench, shaking Villas-Boas' hand, and giving Lampard a hug. Class.

For all his delight at Chelsea's victory, Lampard must have been deeply frustrated by playing no part in this. Florent Malouda arrived, replacing the superb Mata, another sign of the changing times.

Sadly, there were more arriving on to the pitch, two idiotic fans who held up play. One took the ball off a Valencia player. Everyone thought that was Romeu's job.

The life went out of Valencia. At the final whistle, Villas-Boas permitted himself a small smile at a big victory. Chelsea march on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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