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Chelsea’s Iffy Week

Chelsea’s draw with Juventus and win over Stoke

It wasn’t an altogether happy week to be a Chelsea fan.  I guess it sounds ungrateful to gripe about a Champions League draw (against Juventus last Wednesday) and Premier League win (over Stoke yesterday) – particularly if you’re, say, a Liverpool fan – but there are some frustrating aspects to the Blues’ recent performances that have made for some nerve-wracking matches.

Let’s start with that mid-week Champions League season opener against Juventus at Stamford Bridge.  Plenty to be excited about in the first half thanks to new Blue Oscar’s two sweet, long-range goals.  Plenty to be frustrated about too though, thanks to Chelsea’s ongoing inability to protect a lead.

For all of Chelsea’s intricate passing prowess – and they’ve certainly improved in that area this season – they’ve had far too many giveaways the past few matches.  Mikel got a lot of heat for his careless turnover pass that led to Juventus’ equalizing goal, but Ramires has had an alarming number of errant passes recently.  As a side note, Mikel’s error was extra painful after watching former Chelsea favorite Michael Essien excel in Real Madrid’s big Champions League win over Manchester City Tuesday.  It underscored my feeling that Essien was unfairly (and unwisely) pushed out the door in favor of Mikel.  I like Mikel, but I still think Essien is a more complete and reliable midfielder.

Chelsea squandered a great opportunity to beat Juventus and now faces a slightly more uphill Champions League climb than should’ve been necessary.

Against Stoke yesterday, we saw more of the same shiny Chelsea possession that fails to create many actual scoring chances.  Hazard continues to provide tremendous spark and creativity, and Oscar continues to show potential.  Mata, Hazard, Oscar, and Ramires constantly buzzed around the box, and constantly got knocked off the ball or fouled.  These are small guys.  Fast guys, but small guys.  Chelsea lacks attacking muscle.  Chelsea desperately needs a striker like, well, I hate to say it but, like Drogba – someone who can hold the ball in the box, create something out of nothing, or dish it off for another shooter.  Torres is not that guy.  I’m completely frustrated with Torres.  Victor Moses provided much more energy when he entered the game in the 61st minute (though I don’t understand why he replaced Hazard).  Moses should start over Torres immediately.

It was fitting that Ashley Cole got Chelsea’s only goal yesterday.  He continues to be a bit of an unsung hero for Chelsea, a defensive stalwart whose hustle and drive never seem to waiver.

It’s great to see Chelsea atop the league of course, but they’re barely squeaking by right now.  To maintain their position (and control their Champions League destiny) they need more consistency on defense and need to convert their offensive passing creativity into goals.

Your thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League opener and/or victory over Stoke?

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Red, White & Blues Roundup

Thoughts on last week’s big matches for U.S., Chelsea, and FC Dallas

There is a reason this blog has been mute this week, even as my three main teams were in action.  And it’s not a pleasant reason.  I’m calling out Time Warner Cable as the worst TV/internet provider in these United States!  My cable went out first.  It was gone for a week, forcing me to watch the Chelsea/Newcastle match at my non-soccer-fan in-laws house.  But thank goodness they have Fox Soccer!  And their big screen isn’t too shabby either.  My Time Warner internet “service” was also out during the cable outage.  Services were restored for a week, then this past Monday Time Warner decided they hadn’t quite scared me away as a customer so they knocked out my internet for another week.  They finally showed up to repair it Friday night.

Then yesterday, just to kick me while I’m down, Time Warner inexplicably pulled the plug on Fox Soccer Channel in the 67th minute of the Chelsea/QPR match!  The horror!  I think that was actually worst than not having cable at all because I didn’t have time to crash my in-laws for the game.  Of course, Time Warner finally restored Fox Soccer a couple hours later, but the damage to my fanhood had already been done.  Time Warner, you are a truly terrible service!  I will be dropping them as my cable/internet provider as soon as possible!

Now back to this week’s soccer action…

First, it was a great, relieving win for the U.S. over Jamaica Tuesday night.  The U.S. looked encouraging in the first half, rattling the post three times.  I started to get that uneasy feeling you get when your team is dominating but can’t quite find the net.  But Hercules Gomez finally created some breathing room with his amazing free kick in the second half.  The U.S. should’ve had more, and they allowed some nerve-wracking moments during the final ten minutes, but the three points were secured and hope is thankfully alive again for World Cup qualification.

“Herculez! Herculez!”

The Chelsea/QPR game was a scrappy one – at least the 67 minutes of it Time Warner allowed me to see.  It ended up a scoreless draw, so at least Chelsea retains first place in the league this week.  It wasn’t a great offensive Blues performance.  Torres was back to his thumb-twiddling ways up top.  Ramires was much weaker than usual.  Hazard continues to be pretty great though.  If his teammates learn to link up with him, Chelsea will generate a lot of goals this season.

Hazardous to defenses (I know, I know. I had to do it just this once.).

On the home front, I was at FC Dallas Stadium last night for the next-to-last FCD home game of the season.  It was a must-win match for FCD against Vancouver Whitecaps if Dallas has any hope of making the playoffs.  The play was extremely physical, the refereeing atrocious, and Dallas’ strike force woefully lacking in urgency (Blas Perez and Brek Shea looked downright lethargic).  The score remained 0-0 until the 96th minute when Julian De Guzman rocketed in one of the shots of the season.  Just minutes earlier I had lamented in my mind that De Guzman had done nothing of note since his arrival in Dallas a few months ago.  I’ve repented of that lament.  The crowd exploded after De Guzman’s amazing goal and it was probably the most exciting MLS match moment I’ve ever experienced in person.

The U.S. men and FC Dallas are off for a while, but Chelsea has a big week ahead with Juventus on Tuesday in Champions League action and Stoke visiting on Saturday.  Good times!

What was your favorite soccer moment this week?

Shield’s Up!

5 questions facing Chelsea as the new season kicks off with tomorrow’s Community Shield match…

This soccer summer has flown by thanks to the Euros, Chelsea’s U.S. tour, and the Olympics.  Chelsea faces Manchester City tomorrow in the mother of all preseason games – the unofficial start of the new Premier League season – the FA Community Shield.  As a new season dawns, here are 5 questions facing the Blues:

1)  Will Fernando Torres be able to fill the departed Didier Drogba’s shoes? 

Unfortunately for Chelsea fans, the answer is no.  But very few strikers could replicate the heroics Drogba produced during his Chelsea years.  Although we may see some short-term improvement from Torres after his positive output at Euro 2012, he has never quite clicked with Chelsea and I’m not expecting many goals from him in the new season.

Now that 19-year-old Romelu Lukaku has been loaned to West Brom for the season, Chelsea may do some last minute shopping for an additional striker.  Lukaku was a hot signing for Chelsea early last season when he was billed as a potential replacement for Drogba.  Instead, he languished on the bench, making occasional cameo appearances in lower profile matches.  I’m disappointed to see him loaned, but hopefully he’ll get some vital experience at West Brom and return to Chelsea a more polished, confident player.

With Lukaku out of the picture for now, the Blues need Daniel Sturridge to have a breakout season at forward.

2)  Who will make up the core of Chelsea’s midfield?

Chelsea is currently stocked up on midfielders:  Frank Lampard, Jon Obi Mikel, Ramires, Florent Malouda, Michael Essien, Raul Meireles, Eden Hazard, Oriol Romeu, Josh McEachran, Marko Marin, and now Oscar (the Brazilian youngster Chelsea signed a couple weeks ago).

It’s a good problem to have, sorting through so much talent, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Will we see a regular group of starters, or will there be constant rotation?  If rotation is the answer, will the midfield be able to gel?  Even if the club offloads a few midfielders, there will still be a lot of talent on the bench every week.

A lot could change in the next few weeks.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Malouda and maybe even Meireles transferred before the season kicks into high gear.

3)  Is the defense deep enough to survive another grueling schedule?

Surprisingly, Chelsea’s summer deal making (and attempted deal making) has focused on midfielders and strikers.  But it was the back line that ran low on options at the critical point of last season due to injuries and suspensions.

John Terry will likely continue anchoring the Chelsea defense, but how long can he hold up?  By his own admission, Terry is starting to feel his age.  Who will fill in when Terry needs extra recovery days?  Barring any last minute summer signings, we’ll likely see a lot more of Ryan Bertrand who played very well when called on at the end of last season.

Assuming Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and Terry are the regular rotating starters, there aren’t many additional bench options.  Paulo Ferreira may have a little left in the tank, but he’s been at the club since 2004 and has had a very limited role the past two seasons.  Sam Hutchinson’s comeback story is inspiring, but he may not be ready for the rigor of weekly Premier League defending.

Chelsea tried to get Marseille defender Cesar Azpilicueta this week, but Marseille rejected the offer.  Now Di Matteo may be looking at Juventus defender Stephen Lichtsteiner instead.

4)  Which loan players should be retained and who should be loaned this season? 

Josh McEachran was being carefully groomed under Carlo Ancelotti two seasons ago, but Andre Villas Boas ignored McEachran at the beginning of last season.  The 19-year-old went on loan to Swansea for the remainder of the 2011/2012 season where he didn’t see much more playing time.  McEachran has a lot of potential but Chelsea’s midfield is so crowded right now, he’ll likely go on loan for another season.

Yossi Benayoun is a talented player who doesn’t seem to fit in Chelsea’s overall plan.  He spent last season on loan at Arsenal where he did quite well.  Benayoun was on the bench for Chelsea’s preseason loss to Brighton last Saturday, but he didn’t play and it doesn’t seem likely Chelsea will keep him much longer.

Further room on the Chelsea bench might also be made by loaning Kakuta, van Aanholt, and even Oriol Romeu.

5)  Will Roberto Di Matteo make it past Christmas in charge of Chelsea?

When Di Matteo was finally offered a two-year contract earlier this summer after his stint as Chelsea’s interim manager, it seemed only fair.  After all, Di Matteo earned the opportunity by leading the club to the FA Cup and Champions League titles.  The contract offer showed promising (and rare) open-mindedness about manager selection from owner Roman Abramovich.  It will be interesting to see how the new season tests Abramovich’s patience.  Will he be willing to weather the season’s storms with Di Matteo at the helm or will he fire him at the first sign of trouble?

As usual, there are a lot more questions than answers.  One thing’s pretty certain though:  it won’t be a boring season for Chelsea!

What do you think about Chelsea’s prospects this season?

Post-All Star Game Thoughts

MLS All-Stars beat Chelsea 3-2

They’re still in preseason.  They’re still in preseason.  They’re still in preseason.  That’s what I’ve had to keep telling myself about Chelsea since the loss last night to the MLS All-Stars in Philadelphia.  Actually, it wasn’t a poor Chelsea performance.  And the All-Stars weren’t particularly starry.  It was a decent game with a decent number of scoring chances for both teams.  Still, I’d rather Chelsea have won.

Michael Essien was on fire last night.  He looked like the pre-2011-injury Essien (which is a good thing).  Perhaps he is just now fully recovered from the knee injury that wrecked half of last season for him.  Or, perhaps he was just a man on a mission to show Di Matteo that he can still take care of business in midfield.  Regardless, he looked great and made a tremendous case for himself.  His was aggressive and fast on defense.  His passes were back to their old accuracy.  It was great to see.

For all the talk about Chelsea’s supposed youth revolution this summer, look who scored the Blues’ goals last night – Terry and Lampard.  These guys just keep on ticking.  I don’t know how many more seasons they’ve got left in them, but as long as they keep contributing like this, it’s hard to think about replacing them.

New Blues Marko Marin and Eden Hazard didn’t quite click with the team last night.  Marin held onto the ball a little too long in the box on several occasions when a quicker shot or pass might’ve been the better option.  Unfortunately, Hazard simply didn’t get many opportunities to show his stuff when he came on in the second half.

Lukaku’s effort was decent.  I’d like to see him pull the trigger on shots more often.  He could be a little more selfish with the ball in front of goal.  And we still haven’t gotten a good look at his heading ability.  But overall he had a better game than he did against PSG.

One of the trickiest aspects of Di Matteo’s job this summer will be figuring out what the best combination of players is, particularly in midfield.  That job is even harder with some key guys like Mata and Sturridge currently busy at the Olympics.  I thought the first half offensive group (Lampard, Essien, Benayoun, Ramires, Marin, Lukaku) significantly outperformed the second half group (Mikel, Meireles, Hazard, Piazon, Malouda, De Bruyne).

Last night’s loss was disappointing because you want to see your team dominate in preseason.  But it’s not that big a deal.  There is a still lot of preseason yet to go.  The team is already in Miami for their final U.S. Tour stop where they’ll play A.C. Milan on Saturday.

Your thoughts on Chelsea’s performance last night?

City of Brotherly Blues

Chelsea head to Philadelphia for MLS All-Star Game

Chelsea tied Paris St. Germain 1-1 in last night’s match at Yankee Stadium.  It was a ho-hum game for the most part – not bad by any means, just a little stuck in lower gear.  PSG was definitely a step up competition-wise from the Sounders game.  Some better finishing might’ve garnered Chelsea the victory, but it was still a good battle back to tie the game.  Today the team travels by train to Philadelphia for Wednesday’s clash with MLS All-Stars.

I still like the promise displayed by Hazard and Marin in last night’s game.  They could make a big impact for Chelsea this season.  I was less impressed with Lukaku and De Bruyne last night than against Seattle.  Hutchinson also looked a little shaky on defense and too hasty with several passes.  I wish McEachran had seen more of the ball when he came on in the second half.  I also wish Malouda would regain his former sharpness in the final third.  He had one of Chelsea’s best scoring opps of the match but smacked it directly at PSG’s keeper.

But these are small criticisms considering it’s preseason with lots of player rotation.  And considering there are so many young players on this tour.  Speaking of – how ‘bout 18-year-old Brazilian Lucas Piazon’s second half goal?  Ramires (also Brazilian!) slipped Piazon the sweet pass that led to the goal.  Earlier in the game I complained aloud about this whippersnapper Piazon who seems to have a penchant for trying to dribble around defenders instead of passing.  Equalizing goals have a penchant for shutting me up.  Piazon’s probably too young to earn a spot with Chelsea this season, but perhaps we glimpsed a bright future Blue last night.

Today’s Oscar the Brazilian Wonder Kid update swings back in the direction of him actually joining Chelsea.  What that means is, nobody really knows for sure.

There are a couple items today about expensive German club players that Chelsea has tried to get – Andre Schurrle of Bayer Leverkusen and Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund.  That’s the downside of being one of the world’s moneybags clubs, everyone tries to fleece you.

There’s also much chat today about Frank Lampard’s potential MLS future.  I think it’s a non-story.  The guy is committed to Chelsea to the end of his contract.  Sounds like he answered reporters honestly after last night’s game because his future beyond this season really is up to Chelsea.  They may decide not to renew, but I think that would be the only scenario that would send Lamps to MLS.  By the way, if that does happen, FC Dallas wants you Frank!*

*I have no authority to speak on behalf of FC Dallas.  But I’m inviting you to join the club anyway!

Your thoughts on the Chelsea/PSG match last night?

Longest 45 Minutes Ever

Chelsea – with 10 men – beat Barcelona to advance to Champions League Final

I’m too giddy to write anything very coherent so I’m just going to spill some random thoughts on Chelsea’s remarkable, against-all-odds defeat of the defending Champions League champs.  I really didn’t think the Blues would have a more dramatic victory this season than the one over Napoli at Stamford Bridge to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.  Fortunately, I was wrong, as today’s team effort has to be one of the most dramatic wins in the club’s history.

The first half was pretty disastrous for Chelsea.  Once Barcelona went up 2-0, the match had vibes of a rout.  A few minutes before Barcelona’s second goal there was the bizarre red card for John Terry.  Bizarre not so much because he didn’t deserve it – he probably did, though a yellow card would’ve sufficed given the heft of the game – but because it was such a remarkably dumb thing to do.  Particularly dumb coming from the team captain!  I just don’t get how he could weather the first game with such diligence and poise only to throw everything away by kneeing Sanchez in the back.  It’s still unbelievable.  Now Terry will have to watch the Final from the stands.

After the disappointment of the Terry ejection, the Ramires goal was a surreal lifeline for Chelsea.  Once again, Lampard hit Ramires with a terrific pass, then Ramires calmly chipped the keeper for the crucial away goal.  Beautiful goal, and the timing couldn’t have been better for keeping Chelsea’s hopes alive for the second half.

Gary Cahill had to leave the game early on when he tweaked his hammy.  Frankly, I thought Chelsea was defensively doomed when Bosingwa jogged on as Cahill’s replacement.  Ironically, two of the Chelsea players I recently wrote should be transferred this summer were on the pitch by the end of the match:  Kalou and Torres.  At first (after coming on late in the second half), Kalou and Torres were up to their regular shenanigans – passing the ball to the other team and not taking advantage of the precious few scoring opportunities (Kalou squandered one chance that baffled the commentators).

But then, in the 90th minute, redemption for Fernando Torres.  He got on the end of a long clearance from Ivanovic, very coolly sidestepped Barcelona’s keeper Valdes, and slid in the goal that sealed Chelsea’s trip to the Final in Munich.  Earlier in the game it had crossed my mind how sweet it would be if Torres could get a heroic goal after the critically panned season he (and fans) have endured.  Amazingly, it actually happened.

If possible, this match was even more nerve fraying than the first leg at Stamford Bridge.  Almost the entire second half took place in front of Chelsea’s goal.  I just don’t get how this could be the same Chelsea team that floundered against so many lesser Premier League opponents this year.  How has Di Matteo been able to create such a cohesive unit?  The Blues’ defensive discipline was remarkable and Petr Cech had one of the best games of his career.

The downside of today’s win is that it felt like the Champions League Final.  It was such an epic effort by Chelsea that I fear the actual Final next month may seem a bit anticlimactic.  Another downer is the number of key Chelsea players who will miss the Final due to yellow card accumulation:  Ivanovic, Ramires, Meireles, and of course Terry.  UEFA needs to respect fans and allow the best players to play in the Final by clearing the card slate after the semifinals.

What a night for Chelsea fans!  This unexpected Champions League run goes a long way toward redeeming this season’s travails.  I don’t know which opponent I’d prefer for Chelsea in the Final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  For now, I don’t really care.  I’m just going to enjoy the fact that Chelsea somehow has a ticket to Munich!

Thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League shocker?  Feel free to share below…

Yes They Can!

Chelsea grinds out 1-0 win over Barcelona

Well, it wasn’t pretty.  Possession-wise it was one of the most lopsided matches I’ve seen in a long time (in favor of Barcelona in case you didn’t watch).  But Chelsea held on for dear life, defended with steely resolve, and it somehow worked!  They capitalized on a sliver of an opening at the end of the first half when Lampard stole the ball from Messi, launched it down the left-hand flank to the on-rushing Ramires, who then slid it across the box to who else?  Old-man Drogba, who knocked it in.  I giggled with delight, caught my breath at halftime, then went back to nervously rocking in the fetal position as Barcelona played keep-away for another 45 minutes, occasionally rattling the post or forcing Petr Cech to make Gumby-like stretch saves.

Six months later when the final whistle blew, I pried my fingers out of the couch armrest, allowed myself to smile and breathe normally for a few minutes, then began wondering if my heart will be able to weather the return leg next Tuesday at Barcelona!  It was a heroic effort today, far from Chelsea’s best, but they got the job done.  One down, one to go!

Will Chelsea be able to finish off Barcelona at Camp Nou?

Dismal Blues Part 2

Why Chelsea’s oldest players aren’t the club’s main problem

The popular jab at Chelsea all season has been the collective age of their players – that they’re too old to hack it anymore and that wholesale changes are needed.  Critics may be right about the wholesale changes part, but Chelsea’s aged players aren’t the primary problem.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Wigan and Fulham matches were a real beat-down for this fan even though Chelsea beat Wigan and tied Fulham.  I guess having two matches so close together just magnified the aspects of Chelsea’s play – and the players – that have annoyed most of the season.  I didn’t have a week between games to forget the team’s problems and become an optimist again.

I hate to pick on Fernando Torres first (because he has been drubbed by critics throughout his year and a half at Chelsea) but my fan patience has expired with him.  I like the guy, have rooted for him to succeed, and wish he would be a Chelsea superstar.  But if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s probably not going to happen.  His is a particularly frustrating case because you can see potential there, but it’s never realized beyond occasionally sharp passes and crosses.  He works hard, but the effort rarely pays off with shots on goal (or goals period).  Torres takes overly long strides with the ball, predictably barreling straight at defenders, in a halting style that yields constant turnovers.  Didier Drogba on the other hand, while not having his best season, is much more threatening with the ball (he’s also Chelsea’s second highest scorer this season).  He still causes problems for defenders – Torres does not.  Drogba has been woefully underused this season, presumably in an effort to get Torres out of his slump and fully integrated with the team.  It’s not working.  Drogba needs to start every remaining game.  I don’t know what he’s being saved for at this point, as every game is critical.  Torres seems like a decent guy, but for the club’s sake he should be sold.

While I’m thinking about forwards, it’s also time for Salomon Kalou to go.  Kalou has never quite clicked over to the consistency Chelsea needs.  I appreciate that he has earned some extra late season game time by virtue of his Champions League goal at Benfica, but he’s done nothing since to merit this much pitch time.  Kalou makes too many ill-timed passes and often holds onto the ball too long.

Daniel Sturridge should start every game at forward with Drogba.  Sturridge has been the victim of too much lineup tinkering the past few months, which stifled the hunger and goal-scoring savvy he demonstrated early in the season.

At midfield, critics have been cranky toward Frank Lampard because of his age (33) but Lampard is the team’s top scorer this season!  That despite playing less than he ever has at Chelsea.  Lampard has occasional giveaways and unwise fouls, but he isn’t the weakest link in the Blues’ midfield.  Raul Meireles is.  I’ve never been thrilled by Chelsea’s acquisition of Meireles.  His passing is average, he fouls too much, and his shooting is atrocious (no, I’m not forgetting his end-of-match blast against Benfica).  He’s just not reliable enough.  I’d much rather see Michael Essien (who’s still only 29) back as the consistent midfield commander.

Ramires has also annoyed lately.  He’s in danger of falling into the Kalou category of not quite good enough.  I love his tireless hustle, but it doesn’t make up for his awful amount of turnovers!  I’m not ready to throw in the towel on him yet, but he needs some goals or assists to boost his stock.

It’s time for Chelsea to revamp, but getting rid of Terry, Lampard, and Drogba isn’t the answer.  Those three are no longer in their prime, but Chelsea is still better when they’re on the pitch (or at least no worse).  Why would a team get rid of those assets (their top two scorers this season in Lampard and Drogba) as long as they’re still healthy?

When this season began, it seemed Chelsea was in the process of integrating young players with the “old”.  What happened to Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu?  We saw Romeu quite a bit before Christmas, but I don’t understand why the heavily touted Lukaku hasn’t been granted more run-outs.

This off-season, Chelsea needs to take the long-haul approach to rebuilding, which means no more mid-career, Torres-type acquisitions.  Instead, they need to milk the remaining seasons from their veterans while weaving in dynamic youngsters.  Youth is the ticket!  That strategy may not yield immediate trophies, but the delayed gratification would be worth it.

What players do you think Chelsea should relinquish this summer?

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?

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?