Eden Hazard fires Chelsea into Europa League last 16

Michael Regan

Well at least Eden Hazard turned up. One week after a substitute put some gloss on an awful game against Sparta Prague, Hazard fired in a late goal to ensure that Chelsea drew level with their Czech opposition on the night and advanced to the last 16 of the Europa League.

It wasn't a vintage performance. The Blues were obviously the better side at Stamford Bridge, but a ridiculously conceded goal put them on the back foot early on and a combination of bad luck, poor finishing and a goalkeeper in fine form made it look as though we were headed to extra time before Hazard bailed us out.

Even though key players like Hazard, David Luiz and Frank Lampard were rested, things looked good for Chelsea early on. John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses returned from a successful Africa Cup of Nations campaign, and the latter injected an early spark by bursting into the box and pulling the ball back for Fernando Torres, who fired just wide.

Torres had another chance moments later when two great balls from Oscar and Mata ended up giving the striker space for a free, point-blank volley, but again just missed, putting his effort over the crossbar with Tomas Vaclik well beaten. And then, disaster.

With a 1-0 lead from the away leg combined with the knowledge that the visitors were not a particularly explosive attacking force, Chelsea could play at a canter. But they absolutely could not concede a goal, and that's what happened when Marek Matejovsky played in Vaclav Kadlec 16 minutes in.

Chants of 'one di Matteo' were ringing out around Stamford Bridge as Kadlec scampered past a flat-footed Gary Cahill, and although the midfielder went to ground in the penalty box, some improvisation ensured that he got a pass away to the totally-unmarked David Lafata. Lafata had missed his fair share of chances in the first leg, but made no mistake here, smashing past Petr Cech to give the visitors a shock 1-0 lead.

That should have spurred Chelsea into action. It didn't. Sparta Prague actually looked more likely to score for much of the first half, despite the Blues having most of the ball. There were bright sparks, certainly -- Juan Mata's exquisite touch to set up a shot (met by an equally exquisite reaction save from Vaclik) will live on in the memory long after the result of this game is forgotten -- but on the whole it was, well, dross.

Things picked up a little bit in the second half, which Ramires opened by ringing a shot off Vaclik's left-hand post. Torres was then denied by the goalkeeper in a one-on-one when his scooped finish failed to match the excellence of his initial turn. Vaclik also rather annoyingly kept out John Terry's clever flick when it seemed destined for the top corner.

As the minutes went by, things got... stressful. If Sparta had scored again, Chelsea would have then needed two goals to advance thanks to the away goals rule, which was obviously not going to happen until it very nearly did. Matejovsky was somehow given the time and the space to run straight through the midfield, and his long-range shot was dragged inches wide with Cech rooted to the spot.

Chelsea took it up a gear with the introduction of Hazard, who caused the visiting defenders fits with his dibbling ability, but the final touch just wasn't there, and extra time loomed. Two minutes of injury time were announced, and the Blues spent the first half defending and were lucky that Kadlec didn't score. The prospect of thirty extra minutes of this had me vastly unimpressed.

And then Hazard struck. It's impossible to do his goal justice with words -- he seemed to be abiding by totally different rules of physics as he picked the ball up from Ryan Bertrand, exploded beyond the defence and set himself up for a thunderous left-footed shot.

If Vaclik had tried to keep that shot out, he'd probably have ended up being the first human in history to undergo an amputation via football. But he barely had time to register what was happening before the ball was passing. Chelsea 1-1 (2-1) Sparta Prague.

Easy, right?

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