That turned out to be pretty interesting. Chelsea advanced to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Europa League by beating Steaua Bucharest 3-1 at Stamford Bridge, overturning a 1-0 deficit from last week. Said win didn't come easy, though -- the Blues crawled out of the blocks and although the managed to grab a goal after half an hour the visitors gave us a collective kick in the nuts with an equaliser in first-half stoppage time that meant we needed two in the second half to advance. Those two goals were scored, of course, but it all made for a match far more intense (and, in retrospect, more fun) than it could have been.
Rafa Benitez fielded about the strongest lineup that he possibly could*, throwing out Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar as well as what should be Chelsea's first-choice centre back pairing of John Terry and David Luiz. Yes, they were the wrong way round, but baby steps, right?
*Which raises some interesting questions, including 'why are you prioritising the Europa League?'
At first, it didn't seem to be doing us much good. Chelsea's play, a couple of John Obi Mikel shots aside, looked like a continuation of their rather dire form in Romania. Steaua were pressing hard whenever the Blues were on the ball, which led to an alarming number of misplaced passes and downright giveaways.
The visitors actually looked more likely to score in the earliest stages, and it took a great stop from Petr Cech to keep the match level after a bizarre defensive screwup set Raul Rusescu free on goal. But eventually, Chelsea got a foothold in the tie thanks to -- who else? -- Mata.
It wasn't the world's prettiest goal, but some of the play was breathtaking. Ramires showed where his true value lies by making a bursting run from deep, playing a possibly accident one-two with Mata which resulted in the Spaniard spinning around his flat-footed marker and firing away shot on the turn. It looked for a second as though Ciprian Tatarusanu had done enough to keep it out, but the ball trundled towards the post and bounced in in something approximating slow motion.
For a few minutes after that, the shackles came off. Hazard was excellent, and his direct running was giving Steaua's defenders nightmares. Both he and Ramires should have extended Chelsea's lead before halftime, but eventually, with the interval coming up, the defence switched off and were made to pay.
It's difficult to explain the goal, because it was a complete and utter disaster. Chelsea failed to clear a near-post corner, which resulted in Cech being forced into a scrambling save to deny Cristian Tanase. Said save should have been the end of the threat -- Cech managed to push the ball out of the goal and it would have gone out of play but for the unfortunate positioning of Fernando Torres, who was lying on the goalline after a failed challenge.
Naturally, the ball bounced off the prone striker and fell straight to Vlad Chiriches, who slotted into the essentially unguarded net. The goal, which occurred more or less concurrently with the halftime whistle, took the wind out of our collective sails -- with an away goal and a 2-1 aggregate lead, Steaua would be through to the quarterfinals unless Chelsea managed to win by at least two.
Happily, John Terry turned up. Well, happily if you're a Chelsea fan -- I can't imagine that the Steaua faithful would be particularly pleased with their defenders. With a cluster of red shirts marking David Luiz at the far post following a foul by the corner flag, Terry's near-post run was left entirely unmarked. Mata's delivery picked him out perfectly. Mikel, who'd helped clear out space in front of goal, managed to avoid the goal-bound header, which left Tartarusanu with no chance at all. With 58 minutes gone, Chelsea were back in it.
Then the match descended into weirdness. Fernando Torres-inspired weirdness. The striker played one of the better halves we've seen from him in a blue shirt, and his contributions were vital to Chelsea advancing. They were also, however, exceptionally Torresy.
The big one came first. Hazard dummied a diagonal pass from Mata, leaving Torres free on goal. The striker, desperately low on confidence, made no mistake this time, slotting coolly into the bottom corner to establish a lead that the Blues wouldn't relinquish.
Scoring seemed to bring Torres to life. His next significant involvement featured the centre forward dancing into the box and then going down under a meaty and incredibly ill-timed challenge from Chiriches. His penalty appeal was denied for some reason, and while he was on the ground he got a suspiciously deliberate-looking kick in the face from Lukas Szukala, who also tried to injure David Luiz later on in the match. This was the result:
So that was nice. Soon after that, though, Chelsea would get a penalty when Alexandru Bourceanu got absolutely ruined by Hazard, who was far too lively for Steaua to keep up with. Torres, confident now, stepped up to the spot for the kick that could finish off the contest... and hit the crossbar. It wasn't even a bad penalty -- six inches lower and it's buried in the top corner -- but that's how life goes for Torres these days. Happily, he didn't let that affect his play too much, and he very nearly set up Yossi Benayoun in injury with a brilliant run and low cross that would have been much better if Benayoun wasn't the one he passed it to.
Fortunately, Chelsea didn't have to regret the missed opportunities. Despite a strong finish from Steaua, Cech's goal didn't come under serious threat again, and the 3-1 score stood. The quarterfinals await.