Tuesday 12 December 2017

Friedrich turns up heat on Chelsea

B Leverkusen 2 Chelsea 1

Jason Burt

Two players on the pitch wore masks -- Petr Cech and Michael Ballack protecting facial injuries -- but there was no disguising the damage this defeat did to Chelsea's chances of progressing in the Champions League.

Leverkusen scored in injury-time, with Manuel Friedrich heading home the winner, but what injury was done to Chelsea?

They now have to beat Valencia in their final tie -- or keep a clean sheet -- to ensure they reach the last 16 for the ninth successive season. Given the way they leak goals at present, the latter would appear impossible -- especially as Valencia struck seven past Genk last night.

Manager Andre Villas-Boas spoke about "execution" before this match and Group E could stand for that unless he and his team are extremely careful -- and defend far better than this.

Villas-Boas will have been deeply frustrated by what he witnessed. Leading by a fine, vintage strike by Didier Drogba and with an exhilarating display from Daniel Sturridge, they let it slip. Such lapses are becoming a trait and one that has to be stopped.

Both Leverkusen's goals were gifted to them late on. How many times has that happened to Chelsea? It's a malaise.

Chelsea's preparations were hampered by an injury to Ashley Cole, who had hobbled out of training on the eve of this encounter after aggravating his problematic ankle, forcing Villas-Boas, with Ryan Bertrand ineligible, to push Jose Bosingwa across to left-back.

Initially Chelsea were pegged back as Leverkusen dominated possession and it was hard to conclude whether Villas-Boas had, actually, asked his players to defend deeper or whether they were simply forced back. Certainly David Luiz and John Terry did not play as high a line as of late.

Leverkusen, who have grown in confidence and improved in form since losing in London earlier this season, sprung their own surprise with the in-form Andre Schurrle among the substitutes, but Stefan Kiessling was posing problems and he was, almost, released through the centre by Lars Bender.

Leverkusen, having won both their previous home matches in this competition, sensed the early anxiety with the influential Ballack having declared pre-match that his former team was "under pressure."

The 35-year-old midfielder was playing his 100th game in European competition and it was interesting to see how Chelsea then matched up with a shift in formation, asking Frank Lampard to push further forward in support of Drogba, with, for a third successive match, Fernando Torres starting on the bench. Nicolas Anelka did not even travel.

Chelsea were playing dangerously when, after a fine run by Gonzalo Castro, Leverkusen won a corner which was met by Ballack, whose header struck the crossbar only to be hacked away by Ramires. It was a watershed moment.

Finally Chelsea found some cohesion with Raul Meireles working his way forward to pick out Sturridge who, with an even smarter pass, released Drogba. The striker rounded goalkeeper Bernd Leno, but the angle was tight and his right-foot shot struck the side-netting. Soon after Drogba flicked the ball over to Sturridge, who held it before teeing up Juan Mata only for his volley to be held by Leno.

Chelsea looked far more threatening and assured and it was no coincidence that it occurred after Mata was brought more into a game which had up until then remained, to be honest, tepid.

Leverkusen's initial promise had faded, with a flurry of cautions and a sense of growing frustration and Villas-Boas will have been delighted with his team's growing control and purpose.

Unsurprisingly, it was Chelsea who then made the breakthrough, early in the second half, with the increasingly vital Sturridge again picking out Drogba who used his power to hold off Friedrich, spin and fire a low shot across Leno and into the net to gain a precious advantage.

The goal had a greater significance -- it was Drogba's 34th in the competition, more than any other African player and taking him to eighth on the all-time list. It was also a vintage strike.

The goal pricked Leverkusen back into action and Cech twice thwarted Ballack.

Then, just as it seemed Leverkusen had lost hope, they equalised. Branislav Ivanovic was caught out of position and Sidney Sam raced down the wing. Cech hurtled from goal, but could not reach the ball and the winger's cross drifted over the Czech Republic goalkeeper and allowed Eren Derdiyok to nod into an empty net.

A draw would have been reasonable, but Chelsea were desperate for victory and Drogba was unfortunate not to earn a penalty when he was brought down by Bender.

Soon after, Drogba volleyed another opportunity wide. It proved costly, with Friedrich's injury-time header from a corner claiming a shock win for the Bundesliga side. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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