Benitez blasts penalty call after Chelsea sink to embarrassing loss
Chelsea's season keeps getting harder. The European Champions, whose defence ended earlier than any previous holder's, are now in danger of dropping out of the booby prize early too.
A first-leg defeat to Steaua Bucharest is not irreversible at Stamford Bridge next week, but to the players, manager and owner of a proud club it represents another embarrassment in a chastening season.
It will also further test faith in Benitez, who rotated his players ahead of Sunday's FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, but against committed opponents backed by a fiercely partisan crowd found his squad short of cutting edge.
Benitez made five changes from the side that beat West Brom last Saturday and saw two of them exposed. Steaua's goal came courtesy of a penalty conceded by Ryan Bertrand, selected ahead of Ashley Cole, and Juan Mata's replacement Yossi Benayoun failed to take Chelsea's best chance of the game.
This result will not have changed the Chelsea fans' view of Benitez, but the other glaring flaw in this side, Fernando Torres, is not a problem of his making.
It is not news that Torres struggled to make an impact – he has now scored just once in 18 appearances – but it is barely credible that despite the millions at Chelsea's disposal they have only two strikers, and only one eligible for this competition.
Benitez said that he had no regrets about making changes as his squad clocked up their 50th game of the season, and argued tenuously that the penalty conceded by Bertrand was harsh.
The full-back was penalised after being caught on the wrong side of Raul Rusescu, and throwing his arm across the striker's chest to block his attempt to get on the end of Iasmin Latovlevici's cross.
Referee Sergey Karasev did not hesitate to award a penalty and a yellow card, though there was a clear case for red. Rusescu picked himself up and drilled the spot-kick confidently past Petr Cech's right hand.
"I think it was a difficult game, a great atmosphere for them, and a soft penalty," Benitez said. "Their goalkeeper made some good saves and, obviously, we have to do our best at Stamford Bridge.
"It will be difficult because they are well organised and are good on the counter-attack but we have to have confidence that we can do well at Stamford Bridge."
He defended Bertrand, and said his side created the better of few chances: "Ryan was playing before, against Sparta Prague, and was doing really well.
"We didn't create many chances ourselves, but they weren't either," added Benitez. "If you consider that Petr wasn't making any saves, it was their goalkeeper who was making the great saves."
Chelsea came close to an immediate response in the 38th minute when Ciprian Tatarusanu saved well from Benayoun, advancing onto a smart through-ball from Hazard. The Israeli's rolled finish was accurate but lacked the pace to beat the goalkeeper.
David Luiz came close with a free-kick from 35 yards but it dipped over the bar, on a similar trajectory to Chelsea's season.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)