Monday 23 October 2017

Benitez hopes hit for six as champions are eliminated

Chelsea 6 Nordsjaelland 1

Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez reacts during their Champions League Group E soccer match against FC Nordsjaelland
Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez reacts during their Champions League Group E soccer match against FC Nordsjaelland

Henry Winter

CHELSEA fought hard against the dying of their Champions League light, recording their biggest-ever victory in the competition but it was the most mournful and Pyrrhic of victories. Chelsea's destiny was decided 1,700 miles away in Donetsk.

The first holders to fall at the group stage, Chelsea were condemned to the Thursday night sideshow of the Europa League when Juventus prevailed in the Donbass Arena. The Stamford Bridge crowd reacted with a whimper, with barely a whiff of protest or rancour. They had briefly voiced their dissent towards Rafael Benitez but there seemed a resigned acceptance of their fate even as the goals flowed.

Even when Fernando Torres's goals came along like the local buses, two in quick succession after a long wait, the fans remained subdued. They seem trapped in a nightmare, managed by somebody they do not respect, and now heading into a competition that some view as an embarrassment. While Manchester United, Arsenal and Celtic will enjoy the glamour of continued involvement in the Champions League, the holders are off to modest pastures new.

Even as the goals went in for Chelsea, they knew their fate really rested in others' hands, in Donetsk. They worked hard, the players focusing on the task in hand. Juan Mata again impressed. David Luiz took his penalty emphatically and even Torres transferred his training-ground expertise to the real testing ground. But the scoreline from Donbass filled their fans with gloom.

Echoing Benitez's call for Chelsea to show more hunger, John Terry wrote in the programme that the players needed "to stand up and be counted", although he himself was sitting down, still recovering from his knee problem. "Let's show some fight and desire for our club and for the shirt, he urged his team-mates, who began as if on a mission, ignoring the subdued mood.

The fans did remind the players that they were still "champions of Europe" while also sending a message to owner Roman Abramovich and Benitez that "there's only one Di Matteo".

Having been billed as 'interim first-team coach' in Premier League team-sheets, Benitez was at least promoted to 'coach' by UEFA.

The manager who masterminded Liverpool's 2005 triumph saw Chelsea almost take the lead after seven minutes. On the night he became a Champions League centurion, Ashley Cole delivered a good cross from the left and Victor Moses' volley drew a fine save from Jesper Hansen.

Chelsea were flying forward, time after time, enjoying the lion's share of possession but the Danes were neat and nimble, building moves, occasionally threatening. Torres had the ball in the net after nine minutes but was rightly ruled offside.

Hansen was working overtime, saving from Torres, then from Eden Hazard. The Belgian looked lively on the left, causing the Croatian Mario Ticinovic frequent problems.

Chelsea had shaped up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Oriol Romeu had come in for John Obi Mikel, who does not seem to have convinced Benitez, although the club clearly rate the Nigerian having awarded him a five-year contract.

With Romeu holding, Ramires was able to push on more, linking with Mata. The Spaniard managed to tease a ball through to Torres but his shot was too close to Hansen. Chelsea almost took the lead from an attack by Moses.

Cutting in from the right, Moses drilled in a ball that Nicolai Stokholm turned on to the bar.

Chelsea then had to negotiate a tricky period. Kasper Lorentzen fired wide.

Enoch Adu had a shot held by Petr Cech, who then reminded everyone of his ability to defy penalty-takers in 2012. When Gary Cahill handled, the referee Bas Nijhuis took advice from his additional assistant referee and pointed to the spot.

The offence seemed fractionally outside the area and justice was soon done. Cech anticipated Stokholm's intentions, diving to his right to save.

The penalties kept coming. Mikkel Beckmann handled Cahill's header and Hazard had his chance from the spot. The Belgian ran in confidently but his delivery was poor, and Hansen saved well. Chelsea did make the breakthrough from the spot six minutes from the break.

Mata had been increasingly a force, his darting runs and clever passes raising anxiety levels in the Nordsjaelland defence. When Mata's shot was ruled to have been handled by Joshua John, Hazard was not given a chance to make amends for his earlier profligacy. Luiz took responsibility and almost took the net off with his powerful kick.

Then came that moment of nirvana for Torres on the cusp of half-time.

Racing on to Moses' pass, Torres held off Michael Parkhurst and tried to dink the ball over Hansen. The ball clipped the goalkeeper, Torres pounced and swept a shot past Pankhurst and in.

The goals continued to flow after the break. Nordsjaelland pulled one back when John ran through and beat Cech. Chelsea responded vigorously.

Mata lifted in a free-kick from the right and Cahill climbed highest, sending a powerful header past Hansen for Chelsea's 200th goal in all European competitions.

Their 201st swiftly arrived, following brilliant work by Hazard, who glided along the goal-line and touched the ball on to Torres, who scored from close range.

The Bridge fell quiet as news filtered though from the Donbass Arena that Juventus had scored.

Cheers still followed when Mata made it 5-1, deserved reward as he followed up when Hansen saved his initial shot.

Chelsea then made it a tennis score as Mata released the substitute Oscar, who scored to make it 6-1.

Chelsea were so in control that Benitez could remove Mata, Luiz could roam around midfield. Torres could have departed with the match-ball but Hansen stood firm.

But then came the final whistle, sounding the Last Post on Chelsea's Champions League season. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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