Chelsea lose to Basel, qualify anyway

Jamie McDonald

When is a 1-0 loss at Basel not a disaster? When it turns out not to matter.

So, the news that actually matters: Thanks to Steaua Bucharest, Chelsea will be playing Champions League football come 2014. A 0-0 draw against Schalke leaves the Germans a point behind us, and with Basel a point behind them only one of them can overtake us to finish first, no matter our result in game six. So Chelsea have qualified for the first knockout round. Given how easy the group was, that's not a remarkable achievement, but it's better than what we did last year, and we can still finish first quite easily.

And in news that matters far less but feels more immediate, the club embarrassed themselves in Switzerland and lost 1-0 on a preventable late goal. Chelsea had been on imperious form in the Champions League -- consecutive 3-0 wins against Schalke had followed a 4-0 battering away against Steaua* --  but Basel are apparently this side's kryptonite.

*A result that looks like it'll decide the group.

It was ugly. Perhaps beyond ugly. Jose Mourinho made one change from the side that thumped West Ham at Upton Park, resting Eden Hazard and slotting Willian in his place. The midfield had looked unpenetrable against the Hammers, but this time out (and I'm not convinced that this wasn't entirely the result of legginess on Frank Lampard's part) it was dismantled more or less at will. John Obi Mikel did a good enough job holding, but he was essentially doing the work of three men and just couldn't keep up.

So Basel were in completely control and could attack at will. This led to some ugly scenes. The hosts were on the front foot from the beginning, and could easily have taken the lead on the second minute when Marco Streller escaped Gary Cahill in the area only to mis-hit his shot and send the ball dribbling wide. John Obi Mikel cleared off the line from a corner, and a little while later Petr Cech was forced into a fine stop when Mohamed Salah fired goalward on the half-volley.

The stats will show that Chelsea had zero shots on Yann Sommer's goal, but nevertheless the Blues had a fine opportunity to go ahead during one of their (rare) forays forward. Ivanovic sent in a hard, swerving cross, Samuel Eto'o got away from his marker and the ball skipped inches past the striker's outstretched toe. It looked promising, but soon afterwards, Eto'o's night was over with what looked like a groin problem. The stretcher came out and so too did Fernando Torres, making a return from his own recent injury. It didn't change much.

Basel continued to pile on the pressure. Chelsea's response was to do nothing at all. The introduction of Hazard for Oscar in the 55th minute briefly looked as though it would change things -- the Belgian looked reasonably dangerous and almost immediately drew a yellow card when Serey Die attempted to bring him down near the Basel box.

Some of the Basel threat had died down by the time we got to the late stages of the half, and it looked like Chelsea's main nemesis was either their own refusal to shoot or Ramires' personal battle with his shoes, which seemed intent on dumping him to the ground at the slightest provocation*.

*And Ramires, don't think anyone forgot that you broke up an attack by kicking Serey Die. I know he deserved it, but  that was really, really stupid.

But we were being lulled into a false sense of security by the hosts' inaction, and as the clock ticked down to a 0-0 draw and a guaranteed first place finish, Salah struck. Fabian Schar sent a long punt forward, and confusing in the line -- no doubt the fault of David Luiz -- meant that the winger was able to sneak behind Ivanovic and apply a cute finish past Cech.

The remainder of the match was fairly pathetic. News came in that the other result in the group had gone our way, rendering the whole exercise inconsequential, which was good because Chelsea were playing like they were on holiday. And so, when the referee blew for full time, Basel had once again grabbed a deserved victory.

If anyone's to blame for this, my guess is that Mourinho didn't do well enough convincing the players that qualification wasn't purely a formality. His quotes about wanting to 'kill' Basel in the pre-match presser smacked of someone who knew there was a chance that his players would know that the Schalke results had wrapped up the group and wanted to avoid complacence. That didn't work, so it was a good thing qualification was indeed a formality.

At the end of the day, it's an embarrassing performance and result, and supporters are right to be unhappy. But at the same time, we've guaranteed that this Champions League run will keep going. The goal of the group stages is to get out of the group. That was done, even if we'd rather it been accomplished with a little more competence on our part and a little less on Steaua's. Either way, it's more than we can say of last year.

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