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Winning Ugly

Chelsea squeaks past Benfica 2-1 to reach Champions League semis

Well, you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you win with your opponent’s flames licking at your heels.  Benfica was certainly the hotter team Wednesday night, predictably enough, since they had the deficit to overcome.  Despite Di Matteo’s wise warnings against complacency leading up to the match, Chelsea looked rather casual and frequently sloppy for much of the game.  Benfica looked hungry and quite eager to stamp their ticket to Barcelona for the semifinal round.

It wasn’t Chelsea’s best effort by a long shot (Ramires’ soul-draining tap-in miss characterized Chelsea’s evening).  The Blues showed little of the cohesiveness and discipline they had in the away leg win.  The Stamford Bridge crowd seemed puzzled by the team’s performance and roared with relief when Raul Meireles slammed home an amazing (and frankly rare by his standards) shot in extra time to seal the victory.  But a win is a win and it sure is fun to have the Blues back in the Champions League final four (for the first time since 2009 when they also played Barcelona).  It’s a major bonus to fans who have watched Chelsea’s Premier League season sputter and stall for months.

So Chelsea will host Barcelona in the first semifinal leg on Wednesday, April 18.  I can hardly wait!  I really wish the first leg was in Barcelona because it seems the team with home field advantage in the second game often has the upper hand.  Still, it’s the Champions League semifinals and after the season Chelsea’s had, fans feel like this is living on borrowed time.  I plan to enjoy the ride, even if it is a steep uphill drive against Barcelona.

Here’s hoping Chelsea can get their act together and seize the opportunity.  It’s so difficult and rare to reach the Champions League final four.  For several Chelsea vets, this may be their last opportunity to win the tournament.  And while you certainly can’t overlook the next couple Premier League matches – Wigan tomorrow and Fulham Monday – as both opponents are playing well at the moment (and they’re the kind of matches that have really tripped up the Blues this season), the primary focus must be defeating Barcelona.  It’s the last chance to convert the forgettable 2011-2012 season to an unforgettable one.

How do you think Chelsea will fare against Barcelona in the first semifinal leg?

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Blues Best Benfica

Chelsea defeats Benfica 1-0 in first leg of Champions League quarterfinal

Where has this defensive discipline been all season for Chelsea?  For most of the match at Benfica yesterday they looked like the stubborn Chelsea defense of old.  Even Cech looked much better than he’s been for much of this season with several fine saves.  Sure Benfica threatened here and there, but the back four of Luiz, Terry, Cole, and a very surprising Ferreira remained focused, unified, and got the job done.

When I initially heard Di Matteo was starting Kalou and Mikel, I was a bit concerned.  They’ve both had rough seasons, particularly Kalou who has barely earned a start this year.  But, they were both spry, didn’t seem a bit rusty, kept mistakes at bay, and had an all-around excellent game.  Kalou even punched in the goal via a smart pass from Torres.  Speaking of, Fernando had a solid outing as well.  Like many other Chelsea fans, I wish he’d go on a scoring rampage, but the important thing is to keep winning and he definitely helped Chelsea do that yesterday.

Surprisingly, Mata had an off night.  He seemed tired (rightly so after all the big games he’s played in such a short span) and I was surprised he wasn’t subbed in the second half.

Ramires drove me nuts with his poor final passes, until the qualities I admire about his game actually initiated Chelsea’s goal.  It was his acceleration and tenacity that got the ball to Torres up the right wing, which was followed by Torres’ pass in to Kalou who scored.

It was pleasing to see Chelsea take care of business so matter-of-factly, with no major defensives gaffes and no goals allowed.  It was also great to see them get the result using several players who haven’t been in the lineup much recently (wish Malouda had also participated) – that must be a morale booster for both starters and bench-warmers, as well as good for locker room harmony.

So now, with things looking grim in the Premier League for Chelsea, the club finds itself one game away from a Champions League semifinal spot.  Who would’ve thought that was a remote possibility back in December?  Benfica visits Stamford Bridge next Wednesday, April 4 for the return leg where Chelsea will have to resist the urge to relax with their 1-0 lead, and remain vigilant to finish off sure-to-be-feisty Benfica.

Will Chelsea advance to the Champions League semifinals? 

Blues Soldier On

Thoughts on Chelsea’s 2-1 loss at Man City and 0-0 draw with Tottenham

After the generally dismal season Chelsea fans have endured, the past couple weeks have been a very welcome respite.  Just a month ago, a loss at Manchester City like the one this past Wednesday would’ve seriously irked Blues fans.  But there is enough positive afterglow from the Champions League comeback against Napoli to outshine the disappointing loss at Manchester City.

This EPL season was a lost cause for Chelsea long ago.  It’s all about Champions League survival now – advancing in the current tourney and qualifying for next season’s edition.  It doesn’t render EPL games unimportant of course – a win Wednesday would’ve been very helpful, but yesterday’s clash with Tottenham at Stamford Bridge carried the most significance.  Even interim Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo admitted a loss to Spurs might have put next season’s Champions League berth out of reach.

Chelsea and Tottenham played the whole match Saturday like they were afraid to lose.  Mission accomplished as neither team scored.  The goalless draw was more disappointing than the loss at Man City since no progress was made toward reducing the five point gap separating Spurs (in fourth place) and Blues (in fifth).  It was a disheartening missed opportunity for Chelsea.  Though there are eight league games remaining, it is a very tall order for Chelsea to overtake Tottenham.  Failure to qualify for Champions League play next season would be a huge disappointment.  It’s hard to imagine that competition without Chelsea!  Still, there are eight games left.  Chelsea must take care of business and hope Spurs sputter badly.

Meanwhile, there’s the little matter of Chelsea’s trip to Benfica Tuesday for the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.  Can’t wait for that one.  It’s going to be a suspenseful April for Blues fans!

What do you think – will Chelsea earn a Champions League slot for next season?

Bravo Blues!

Chelsea defeats Napoli 4-1, advancing to Champions League quarterfinals

Wednesday’s second leg round of 16 clash with Napoli at Stamford Bridge was hands down Chelsea’s biggest win of the season.  It was a crackling night of classic and dramatic Champions League action that saw Chelsea overcome a 3-1 aggregate deficit by netting four goals.  The game was thrillingly suspenseful for 120 minutes, having been forced into extra time since the aggregate score was 4-4 at the end of regulation.  In the 104th minute, Ivanovic scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the kind of triumphant moment reminiscent of the Blues’ better days from the past several years.  It was the kind of moment that makes soccer fans swoon, the kind that have been unfortunately few and far between for Chelsea supporters this season.

Particularly gratifying in this match were the unified heart and fighting spirit the team demonstrated throughout.  It was the kind of will to win that has been oddly absent for much of this campaign.  The fact that three of Chelsea’s four goals were scored by Chelsea’s “old guard” (Drogba, Terry, and Lampard respectively) was also quite gratifying.  Their goals and leadership were emphatic parries to critics’ jabs this season that Chelsea would be better off without these “geezers”.  What is remarkable about this rampant critical ageism is the double standard demonstrated by the rave reviews heaped on Manchester United’s own geezers Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.  Wednesday night’s performance proved that Drogba, Terry, and Lampard are not done yet!

The victory over Napoli keeps hope alive that perhaps something magical can be salvaged from this otherwise dreary season for the Blues.  Today’s Champions League draw determined that Chelsea will now travel to Benfica for the first quarterfinal leg on March 27th.  Here’s hoping that Chelsea’s recent recovery blossoms into a resurgence that will propel them all the way to the final in Munich!

How will Chelsea fare against Benfica in the quarterfinals?