Schalke away was, in theory, the most difficult match in Group E. Granted, the fact that Chelsea lost their opening game against Basel made us lose sight of that a little bit, but it was supposed to be a simple formula: Win at the Veltins-Arena, qualify for the knockout stages. Thanks to their September stumble, the Blues don't have the luxury of taking their foot off the pedal, but they did give themselves vital breathing room with a 3-0 win in Germany, going top of the group in the process.
Fernando Torres made his 100th start for the club (how time flies!), and duly got us off to the perfect start when he nodded in a Branislav-Ivanovic-assisted corner in the fifth minute. The early lead meant that Chelsea could sit back and invite Schalke to come at them, which they duly did. Granted, we could have done with far less giving the ball away -- the end of the first half was particularly sloppy -- but the onus was on the hosts to find a way to break down a rather odd looking defence*, and they failed to do so.
Petr Cech as, is his wont, excelled whenever Schalke threatened, saving well from Kevin-Prince Boateng, Roman Neustadter and Dennis Aogo (the latter was offside, though), and there was a stroke of good fortune when a scramble in the box ended up backheeled wide by Benedikt Howedes rather than slotted home by one of the various other green shirts buzzing about, but aside from that dangerous spell the hosts were fairly well contained.
Chelsea were playing on the counterattack, using pretty much the standard Jose-Mourinho-away-in-Europe method, and it was working to perfection. They could have gone further ahead from another set piece 51 minutes in, but Torres's superb header hit the angle of post and bar rather than the top corner, and Time Hildebrand was on hand to mop up while John Terry lurked dangerously.
It was only going to be a matter of time before a frustrated Schalke side were going to over-commit to find an equaliser, and the inevitable mistake arrived courtesy of Max Meyer, who showed too much of the ball to Eden Hazard and was rewarded by the Belgian seizing possession, leaping over the hapless midfielder, and starting a three-on-one counterattack. Oscar did very well to hold Jermaine Jones up, squared to Torres, and the centurian happily rounded Hildebrand to slot home at make it 2-0.
And that was that. John Obi Mikel and David Luiz were introduced to shore up the lead (Andre Schurrle went off with what looked like a recurrance of his ankle problem), while Schalke continued to play the rather suicidal game of pushing everyone forward and then giving the ball away. Chelsea looked the more likely to add another goal, and eventually Hazard put an exclamation mark on the scoreline after being fed by Ramires, running half the length of the pitch, taking advantage of Torres' decoy run and finishing rather contemptuously past Hildebrand to make it 3-0.
David Luiz, playing the libero role, came close to a fourth Chelsea goal after his raking pass to Ivanovic ended up with a shooting chance that was fizzed just wide, but by then the points were very much sealed. A 3-0 win at Schalke would have been enough to put the Blues at the top of Group E no matter what happened, but the day was rendered even sunnier by news that Steaua Bucharest had scored a last-ditch equaliser against Basel to hold the Swiss side to a point.
That opening-day loss seems rather a long time ago now. Chelsea are cruising, and if they can keep this -- or anything like it -- up, they're in very good shape to not just qualify for the knockout rounds but to do so as group winners.