Monday 16 December 2019

Mourinho blames himself for sloppy Blues' failure to seal knockout spot

Maribor 1 Chelsea 1

Glenn Moore

There was precious little for Chelsea fans to sing about last night as their heroes produced their worst performance of the season in Slovenia.

With Sporting Lisbon beating Schalke 04, victory would have booked Chelsea's place in the knockout stages but they were unable to beat a team they thrashed a fortnight ago.

Manager Jose Mourinho admitted he was culpable for not ensuring his players were fully focused at the Stadion Ljudski vrt, saying: "I was conscious of it, but I was not successful in passing over that message. If I cannot convince the players that the game is difficult and you have to play from minute one, obviously it's my responsibility."

Indeed, NK Maribor were on the brink of their first ever Champions League home win when they led after 47 minutes. Chelsea, working much harder than they wanted to with Saturday's lunchtime kick-off at Anfield looming, levelled through Nemanja Matic after 72 minutes, but with Eden Hazard missing a late penalty had to settle for a point.

While Brendan Rodgers sent out his League Cup side at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, Mourinho fielded a strong XI. He felt teams like Chelsea should play a recognisable team as they had a responsibility to supporters in countries such as Slovenia, which rarely host Champions League ties. He was as good as his word, selecting stars such as Hazard, John Terry, Cesc Fabregas and Didier Drogba.

Maribor made three changes from the Stamford Bridge drubbing with the most interesting inclusion being Luka Zahovic. The 18-year-old is the son of Zlatko, Slovenia's greatest player post-independence, and now Maribor's general manager.

But Chelsea took swift control. Kurt Zouma headed over after seven minutes, Drogba brought a good save from Jasmin Handanovic after ten, and it seemed just a matter of time.

But then Tavares burst past Matic and Terry to bear down on goal. Zouma came across and although he failed to gain possession his tackle forced Tavares to slightly overhit his pass to Zahovic, who should have been handed a tap-in. Instead the youngster had to pull the ball back to Sintayehu Sallalich whose weak but goal-bound shot was cleared.

The near-miss seemed to knock Chelsea out of their stride. Willian, playing in the central attacking position usually filled by Oscar, was busy but, as usual, it was Hazard who looked most likely to break the deadlock. Drogba tested Handanovic from a free-kick won by the Belgian, then he brought a scrambling save from the keeper himself.

Otherwise, however, Chelsea were too narrow, and their passing was also uncommonly poor, notably from Fabregas and Drogba.

The travelling support - reacting to Mourinho's criticism of the Stamford Bridge volume levels - chanted "sing up Mourinho" followed by "Jose, Jose, give us a song". Minutes later the half-time whistle blew and Mourinho stalked across the pitch. He looked as if he was about to raise his voice, but not in song.

"The first half we were not good. Very slow, no intensity, no creativity," he lamented afterwards. "In the second half we played very well, but they scored. When they scored the situation was a bit more difficult for us.

"After that I thought we played magnificently: creative, fast, good dynamic, lots of chances to score. By that, we deserved to win."

When Chelsea re-emerged Diego Costa and Oscar were stripped for action. Andre Schurrle, who had been poor, came off, along with Willian as Mourinho went to 4-4-2.

However, it was the hosts who transformed the game. Zouma headed away a cross, it fell to Agim Ibraimi, who took his time - aided by no sign of Hazard or Felipe Luis marking him - and curled a shot inside the far post. Mourinho responded by bringing on Ramires, and effectively playing without a right-back. That nearly led to a second on 55 minutes as Zahovic somehow failed score at the far post.

Chelsea won a corner and before they could take it coach Ante Simundza made a substitution. Maybe that broke his team's concentration as Terry was able to head the corner goalwards, with Matic stabbing the ball over the line.

Chelsea pressed for a winner and Hazard at one end, and Tavares both missed good chances. Having earlier turned down a penalty appeal, the referee finally awarded a spot-kick as Viler brought down Hazard. The Belgian tried his delay technique, but Handanovic outfoxed him and saved. (© Independent News Service)

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