Thursday 22 March 2018

Hazard magic spares Benitez blushes

Chelsea 1 Sparta Prague 1 (Chelsea win 2-1 on agg)

Paul Kelso

Eden Hazard rescued Chelsea's credibility and Rafael Benitez's reputation with a late, late equaliser to book his side a place in the last 16 of the Europa League and avoid the shame of a home defeat by Sparta Prague.

Substitute Hazard's stoppage-time strike, slammed home left-footed, cancelled out the early David Lafata goal that looked likely to earn Sparta a proud second-leg victory, and force the tie into extra-time. Lafata's 17th-minute goal, capitalising on Gary Cahill's slip, cancelled out the 1-0 victory Chelsea earned a week ago in Prague.

On a night that Fernando Torres missed three clear chances, this struggle to reach the next round was not the way it was supposed to be for last season's Champions League winners.

Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanovic were not even in the squad, and Ashley Cole and David Luiz dropped to the bench to be replaced by Ryan Bertrand and John Obi Mikel. Benitez restored Torres for the cup-tied Demba Ba.

Conditions were not quite as bone-chilling as a week ago in the first leg, but Chelsea were almost as poor. They spluttered their way through the first period and fell behind.

Torres missed twice from inside 10 yards, as his misery in front of goal continued . Sparta then stunned the Bridge into silence. Vaclav Kadlec chased down Lukas Vacha's free-kick on Prague's left flank and cut it back and Lafata profited from Cahill's inopportune slip to side-foot past Petr Cech.

Prague came close to extending their lead on the half-hour, Cech forced to deny Tomas Prikryl at his near post after he shot powerfully on the run. As the half drew to a close Sparta blew a chance to hit Chelsea on the break, Prikryl over-hitting a cross with Lafata unmarked.

There was time for Torres to complete a hat-trick of misses with an ill-directed header in stoppage time.

Chelsea emerged for the second half with more intent. Ramires clattered Vaclik's left-hand post and then turned provider, playing in Torres one-on-one with Vaclik. The goalkeeper pawed away the Spaniard's chip.

Benitez threw on Hazard in place of Oscar. That change came moments after Kadlic had the stadium holding its breath with a shot that slipped just wide. Cech was again required to thwart his former club on 77 minutes, clutching Ladislav Krejci's cross to his chest as Lafata lurked for a rebound. Then came Hazard's strike. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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