Chelsea needed a win, and somehow they pulled it off. It wasn't easy -- it was never going to be easy, of course -- but a last
minute second Victor Moses goal was enough to see off Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2, our Ukrainian friends having given us an incredible 90 minutes of football.
It's easy in important games, especially close ones, to find one's opponents genuinely annoying. That was certainly true when we played against, say, Benfica last season. But Shakhtar were a different kettle of fish. There's something deeply endearing about their frenetic, highly technical style of play, and despite the loss at the Donbass Arena a fortnight ago I don't think anyone was feeling particularly ill-disposed towards them.
But the supporters knew that three points were required, fun opposition or not. Chelsea did as well, and with Shakhtar's style committing them to the attack no matter whether or not they're playing at the home of the defending European champions or not, that led to an almost ludicrously open match.
While the visitors outfield players might be superbly talented and comfortable on the ball, veteran goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov was decidedly not. Already caught out by swerving David Luiz free kick in the early going, taking a knock from Gary Cahill as the defender attempted to scramble home the rebound, Pyatov handed Chelsea the lead in the seventh minute thanks to a calamitous piece of play.
Fernando Torres had not exactly covered himself in glory after staring forlornly at the football after Oscar had Oscared his way around Willian and sent in a brilliant cross, but the centre forward found himself on the scoresheet in weird circumstances, catching Pyatov napping when he threw himself in front of an attempted punt downfield. The football bounced off an outstretched toe and headed straight into the net to make it 1-0. Torres had the good grace not to celebrate too much.
He certainly would have celebrated had his next effort gone in. We don't often see Torres with the confidence to take players on, and his move to spin past Yaroslav Ratitsky and bear down on goal felt like some blurry memory from his Liverpool days. Alas, his far-post shot didn't manage to find its way into the back of the net, thanks to a diving stop from Pyatov, who looked a little happier with life after beating away the attempt.
And he would have been much happier 60 seconds later, when Willian equalised. Willian, of course, had been linked to Chelsea repeatedly over the past twelve months, and the Brazilian showed us what we were missing out on by turning a Fernandinho cutback in off an unsighted Petr Cech to draw Shakhtar back to level pegging.
Chelsea's defence looked fragile throughout. John Terry was unavailable with fitness issues, and Ashley Cole was out with an ankle problem, which left Ryan Bertrand and David Luiz guarding the left against the combination of Alex Teixeira and Darijo Srna, with Willian and Fernandinho occasionally adding their firepower to that side, stretching the Blues to breaking point several times.
Shakhtar's heavy press also posed problems for Chelsea. Faced with having to defend against the trio of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, the visitors' basic strategy seemed to be to hit them hard and fast the second they picked up the ball. It's an exhausting strategy -- and a risky one -- but for long stretches of the match it worked. They forced Chelsea onto the back foot for most of the game, testing a defence that was made all the more vulnerable by David Luiz descending yet again into clownshoes territory.
But committing to tackles high up the pitch comes with downsides as well, especially against anyone as good on the ball as the likes of Oscar and Mata. Whenever Chelsea could avoid the first tackle, they could break at pace, and one such incident nearly led to Torres reestablishing the lead, the centre forward executing a magnificent turn to leave Olexandr Kucher in the dust before attempting to squeeze a shot between Pyatov and the near post* which instead hit the side netting.
*Although he was criticised for his decision here, it was an entirely defensible choice. Pyatov was expecting Torres to square the ball and was cheating well off his line in order to cut it out. If the shot had been on target, it was a near-certain goal.
And Shakhtar's insistence on throwing numbers forward proved their undoing just before halftime when the Blues won the ball just inside their own half. Mata scurried forward, saw Torres well upfield and tried to find the striker with a raking diagonal. Torres had the run on the defence, and it fell on Pyatov to sprint out of his area and clear. That he did, but the header had, for the visitors, the worst possible outcome: It landed on Oscar's chest.
One touch to kill the momentum. A bounce off the Stamford Bridge turf. And then a fifty-yard half volley that fizzed over the stranded goalkeeper's head and planted itself rather daintily in the back of the net. It would have been a stunning strike had it not been totally obvious a full second or so beforehand that it was going to go in -- Ramires had already grabbed Oscar in celebration before the ball even crossed the line.
With five minutes to go until halftime, Chelsea then embarked on their brightest spell of the game. They were finally able to secure some sort of foothold on possession, and Oscar nearly struck again before the interval, the Brazilian's effort tipped over the bar by an at-full-stretch Pyatov. If they could manage another goal before the break, they could probably have ended the Shakhtar threat once and for all.
Unfortunately, the visitors were able to regroup for the second half and came out of the blocks flying. The equaliser took just two minutes to materialise, with Srna once again taking advantage of acres of space on the Shakhtar right to create a goal. Despite the attention of David Luiz, Srna was able to cut the ball back to Willian, who put an exclamation mark on his day and fear in Chelsea hearts by stabbing home at the near post.
Back to square one, then. Chelsea were having to hold on at times and were lucky to see Razvan Rat's effort caroom off Cech's left-hand post following a not-completely cleared corner. But by the 60th minute, the effort that the visitors had put into their pressing game was starting to tell, and they were having to drop off and allow the likes of Ramires and Hazard time on the ball. It's no surprise that that pair came into their own in the last half hour, with Ramires making several driving runs from midfield and Hazard earning the team some very dangerous free kicks.
One of those free kicks nearly produce a miracle when John Obi Mikel nodded Mata's delivery past Pyatov at the far post, but the Nigerian's celebrations at ending his years-long goal drought were curtailed by the linesman's flag. Chelsea had nothing to complain about there -- Mikel had somehow strayed a yard offside. Presumably he's never had to learn the rule before.
The Blues did have an officiating decision to gripe about a few minutes later after a wonderful interchange between Hazard and Ramires which ended up with the Belgian slipping a lovely ball to send his teammate free on goal. Or it would have, had Srna, whose defensive abilities are rather eclipsed by his brilliance on the attack, not clipped Ramires' heels to bring him down in the box. Somehow, no penalty was awarded, nor was Ramires booked for a dive.
At the other end of the pitch, some sloppy play by both centre backs occasionally gave Shakhtar half-sniffs at goal, but it was Chelsea who looked the more likely to score. Bizarrely, Mikel came close again when Pyatov's poor excuse for a punch fell to him at the area, but his effort went through a crowd of bodies in the box and flew just the wrong side of the far post.
The Ukrainians would have one last opportunity to win the game, and a series of heroic blocks was called for when Juan Mata allowed himself to be dispossessed in the Chelsea half. Within a span of four seconds Cech, Bertrand and Ivanovic were all called upon to block shots as Shakhtar came perilously close to a horribly deflating goal, but the wobbly defence managed to stave off collapse and the Blues could push forward, their last throw of the dice.
Ramires won a foul, dancing through several challenges in midfield before being brought down by Tomas Hubschman. That free kick led to a corner. And that corner led to a moment that Victor Moses must have been dreaming about for his whole career.
On a a substitute, with no time left on the clock, Moses found himself unmarked in the area. Mata spotted it too, delivering a peach of a cross for the winger to attack. Pyatov had no chance, nor did Rat on the line. With the last meaningful effort of the game, he had delivered a key victory in Chelsea's young Champions League campaign.
Not bad for a player who started the season at Wigan Athletic, eh?