AVB and company open their European account with a fair acquittal against a tough German outfit. Goals from David Luiz and Juan Mata (both set up by Fernando Torres) sealed all three points on this night. More after the jump:
Back in style
You have to be pleased with what you saw. Even the cynic amongst us couldn't fault an effort that was as comprehensive as we've conjured thus far in what is rapidly becoming a fascinating season. AVB's first bow in Europe pitted us against a Leverkusen side that pulled no punches. The return of Ballack notwithstanding, Chelsea fielded a strong squad, but opted to rest a number of players with an eye towards Sunday's crunch clash with United. Rested for this fixture were England's Brave, Frank, and Nico, while David Luiz, Mikel, and Nando returned to the side. Also returning to the starting eleven for this night, was Florent + The Machine. With all the hoopla and hype surrounding Torres heading into this match, it was his first ten minutes that demonstrated his intent.
A bright opening few minutes involved one audacious volley from Nando that almost struck gold. A mere minute later, he back-heeled a lovely cross from Mata into the path of Meireles, who was a shade offside as per the linesmen. The ball managed to find the net, but was disallowed. Still, the sight of Nando popping up and making things happening was more than promising. You could see the instructions written on Mata's face as the match rolled on: "GET NANDO THE ROCK". Another shot opportunity supplied by Mata required a few extra touches from Nando to control, before he fired into the outstretched arm of Leno. Minutes later, Nando stole a step on his marker before heading the ball just wide from close range. Applause for the effort no doubt, but what is it going to take for him to catch a break and net?
The term frantic could be used to describe the opening exchanges. Plenty of back and forward possession for both squads, but the majority of action swung our way. Looking lively, a number of players linked up well to test the Bayer defense. In particular, Mata, Cole, Meireles, Sturridge, and Mikel worked very well together. After dominating the beginning of the match, Leverkusen settled into place and began to press tighter, creating a bit of rigidness and instability among the passing game. Nearing the end of the half, however, Danny Sturridge tested keeper Leno with a rasping drive from the right side of the box, requiring Leno to dive brilliantly to his left to parry away. On the stroke of half time, Mata curled a free kick into the path of Ivanovic who headed straight at Leno from close range. Though the first half would end scoreless, you would be hard pressed to make a case for Bayer being in the lead.
The second half would resume with no substitutions to either side. Ten minutes into the restart, Bayer were on their way to a stunning lead, with Schurrle skipping a pass into the direction of an on-rushing Ballack, who struck his 1 v 1 shot directly at Cech's outstretched arm. A close call, no doubt. Heads up play from Ivanovic, Luiz and Cech on the ensuing set piece created a breakaway opportunity for the Blues that failed to open the score. A header from Torres, coupled with a beautiful one-time volley from Sturridge produced two excellent saves from Leno. Sensing the need for something fresh, AVB elected to bring on two substitutes, replacing Sturridge and Meireles with Anelka and Lampard. Meanwhile, Bayer elected to remove Ballack to a standing ovation from the entire crowd. A moment of pause and reflection for a Chelsea great. Brilliant stuff.
Almost instantly, the changes sparked the squad forward and a goal was forthcoming. David Luiz surged forward from the back, with a mazy run towards the outside of the Bayer box, before dropping a pass off to Nando, who cleverly set it up on a plate for Luiz to drill expertly into the bottom left corner and past the diving arms of Leno. A strike of pure quality, and unsurprisingly, a strike of pure necessity. Bob always seems to hit these critical goals for us- this being his first game in the Champions League for the Blues no less. Credit where it's due to Nando for unselfishly leaving that one for Luiz to nab instead of forcing the issue and shooting himself. Bonus points in my eyes for playing the team game. Minutes after the goal, Chelsea were to threaten again with two strikes from the same spot for Mata a mere minute apart, both time the supply coming from the incredibly lithe and fleet-footed Anelka (who had himself one hell of a cameo today). Each shot was well saved by Leno. A final substitution for the Blues brought Alex into the fray for Luiz, who received a round ovation on his departure.
The final nail came with just seconds to spare in extra time, as Fernando latched onto a forward pass, controlled expertly, cut back and laid off a peach of a pass for Mata to square and tap home from close range. A fitting finish to a night that Nando can certainly be pleased with. AVB will happily take all three points and the confidence of knowing he can rest his 'big names' from time to time and not worry of a complete collapse, unlike last year. Disappointed to not see Josh get a run out, but such is life. Three points, two Nando assists, and debut CL goals from Mata and Luiz is more than enough for me to be happy.
What We Learned:
Simply put, AVB is a true tactician. Sure, he's animated and lively on the touch. But clearly he's paying keen attention to every detail, and for the third consecutive match, he has made timely substitutions that have rendered the result in our favor. I like it.
We were good, then great, then okay, then good again. We need to find that last gear before the United match, but I worry we might not. That said, it will be very interesting to see what lineup AVB throws out at Trafford, with Sturridge, Meireles, Luiz, Mata, Torres, and even Lampard all worth a look.
Bayer really gave us a game. They were physical, and a major threat on set pieces. Ballack, in one first-half moment, muscled the ball from Flo and used his tremendous size and strength to spin and fend off two Chelsea advances. NOT IN DER KAISER'S HOUSE, he said.
It's been said that the key to our season is consistency, and that we've yet to have one truly outstanding game. I agree this was our best performance to date, but still I feel like there is something missing. We weren't firing on all cylinders until after the first goal, and even then our crossing/finishing needs a lot of work.
Fernando's got to score- if for no other reason then to free the rest of the team up from looking constantly for him. Nico wasted a brilliant chance to net by forcing a cross along the ground to Nando. That said, we can all be very pleased with Nando's contribution today. Two assists. This is exactly the type of response everyone had hoped for. If he's struggling to score, as many have pointed out, there's plenty else he could do- and today he seemed to get that point. On the up and up I hope, henceforth.
Called into action how many times? Once. Great reflexes to deny Ballack- still gets caught out on set pieces though. Captain for the evening. 7
Managed to put in a sturdy shift, as per usual, despite struggling, particularly early. His crossing, again, has come into question around these parts. Rightfully so. Had some difficulties going forward, particularly when Schurrle moved to the left. 6
Brilliant in the air as always, but a step slow on the ground. Something doesn't seem quite right with him this season- not sure what it is. Hope he figures it out quickly before he falls out of favor. 6.5
Quiet in the first 45, everywhere in the second. A reckless set of challenges cost him a booking, but one marauding surge forward opened his CL account. That finish? Pure class. 7.5
The best to ever play the position. Untroubled, got forward, covered his lines. Yeah, the usual brilliance. 7.5
John Obi Mikel
Spent most of his time covering defensive lapses, and passing laterally. Did well and looked tidy in possession. Popped up for a header on one set piece- I'd like to see AVB use him more for these situations. 6.5
A couple of nice touches, some good aggression. I really can't complain too much seeing as this was his second match in Blue. He will improve. Subbed for Lamps in the second half. 6
Not comfortable playing through the middle, looked to drift to the flanks as much as possible, creating a bit of chaos for Mata and Cole. 6
What a brilliant signing. Oozing class and creativity at every angle. Kept the engine humming throughout with some brilliant passes and beautiful dribbles to unlock the Bayer defense. Capped the proceedings with an easy finish. Two goals in three matches already. 7.5
To think, at one time people thought him surplus to requirements. His shot is something to reckon with, his pace causes havoc, and his dribbling ability continues to impress. 7.5
Lively, bright start. Almost scored on a number of occasions. Worked hard in between and drifted out wide to receive service on occasion. Will be pleased with his two assists, but gutted not to finish one of his own. Something to build upon and gain momentum I hope. Would normally get a six, but bonus points for the assists. 7 Readers MOTM
Bursting with energy and creativity upon his introduction. Looked on fire with the ball at his feet. A good sign heading into the weekend. 6.5
Never thought I'd see the day Frank comes off the bench for a CL fixture. Came into the mix simply to add some mettle to the midfield. A few excellent crunching tackles and interceptions. 6
Great to see him get involved and make some massive interceptions at the death. With the window closed, the pressure is on him to challenge Luiz and Bane for a starting berth. Plenty of options to choose from ahead of Sunday, will be fascinating to see who gets picked. 6.5