|photo by mik_p||via PhotoRee|
Roberto Di Matteo's Chelsea side invaded a raucous Estadio da Luz Tuesday night, in search of a first leg victory in the Champions League Elite Eight round. The aging Londoners introduced fresh legs into their lineup, including those of forgotten man Solomon Kalou, while resting several -- shall we say -- more mature players such as Frank Lampard, in the hope of lasting a full 90 minutes against their Portuguese rivals. The evening represented a homecoming of sorts for two players in Blue, with Raul Meireles returning to his home country (albeit to a rival team's lair) and David Luiz playing against his former teammates from just over a year ago.
While Benfica 'keeper Artur was less than authoritative on an early cross, and Ramires looked lively in the early going for the visitors, it was the home side with the game's first real opportunity. Chelsea's blushed were spared, however, as Oscar Cardozo fired wide after being picked out on the lob by Javi Garcia.
Juan Mata busied himself buzzing about the pitch like a pesty fly, albeit an insect wearing orange boots. Nico Gaitan and his teammates, on the other hand, more closely resembled a swarm of gnats -- clustering and problematic, but a group which dissolved just prior to the moment at which they would be struck.
Chelsea had good reason to be the happier of the two squads heading into the break, coming closest to a goal through Meireles' nearly lethal dart, while having blunted Benfica's attack at almost every turn. In general, Di Matteo's charges had not allowed the home side to impose their will in a tepid 45 minutes of sleepy inaction.
Cardozo was denied off the line by Luiz in the early second half to preserve the tie, as Benfica sought to take charge of the proceedings. John Terry was fortunate to escape a hand ball directly in front of the end judge -- a useless appendage, if ever there was one -- as the game neared the hour mark, but still the Portuguese found Petr Cech's net impenetrable. For his part, so did the leggy Juan Mata, preferring the near post to a golden opportunity at an empty net gifted by the aforementioned Artur.
As the game opened up slightly, Di Matteo inserted some age to his lineup, opting for Lampard over Meireles, hoping the Englishman would improve the team's performance as the passing of time does a fine wine. The Chelsea coach's hopes were boosted as Solomon Kalou finished off Fernando Torres' lifting cross, the Ivorian unmarked for the Spaniard's artful through ball, as Chelsea scored a vital away goal to significantly add to their advantage heading into the return leg.
The Portuguese had no one but themselves to blame for their deficit and largely impotent attack, spending the last ten minutes of the contest chasing a goal that just wouldn't come. Their wearied efforts left quite a mountain to climb, down a goal as the tie reverts to London for the second leg. Although Stamford Bridge has been less than a fortress this season, good sense dictates that the same Chelsea side struggling to qualify for the 2013 Champions League competition may just have booked themselves a place in the 2012 semi-finals.
This is farlieonfootie for March 28.