It wasn't perfect, but it was better than what came before. Chelsea got their 2011 Champions League campaign off to a perfect start thanks to 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge against Michael Ballack's Bayer Leverkusen. Despite what's now four wins on the trot, Chelsea hadn't been playing particularly well through the opening month of the season, so the match against Germany's runners-up would provide them with an interesting test. Could the Blues step up their game to handle Leverkusen, or would their decent run be exposed as a fraud?
Happily for Chelsea, it would turn out to be the former, although their German guests would prove difficult to handle for much of the match. Andre Villas-Boas opted to rest both John Terry and Frank Lampard for the match, and with Ramires suspended the midfield looked very strange indeed - John Obi Mikel regained his starting position with Florent Malouda and Raul Meireles alongside him, a personnel arrangement which had it been suggested a month ago would have conjured to mind visions of some sort of football apocalypse.
Less odd was the return to action of the only centre half in the Premier League who can lay claim to being his team's prime central creator. David Luiz returned to action for the first time since the debacle at Old Trafford last season, much to the joy of every Chelsea fan who doesn't hate fun. Fellow January acquisition Fernando Torres was also reinstated to the lineup, with rather more trepidation from onlookers. Torres was flanked - finally - by Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge, whom it is hoped will serve to unlock the £50M striker's goalscoring potential.
For the first few minutes of the match, it seemed like everything was going to plan. Chances were flying in left and right, and Torres was at the centre of a passing bombardment. A hooked volley flew just wide of Bernd Leno's right hand post and a backheeled effort was ruled out for offside as Meireles, fractionally off, interfered with play. Torres was looking sharp and confident, and despite an early scare in which Leverkusen too had a goal disallowed and some questions about the back line's ability to fend off an intermittently-threatening attack, the team did as well.
Of course, a quick start can only last so long, and it was Torres who signalled the end of the fun in the 10th minute. Mata, impressive all evening, managed to work the ball to the striker via deflection, but instead of smashing the ball home from close range, Torres opted to take a couple of touches before an incoming tackle forced him into a weak shot that Leno saved easily.
After that, the first half turned into a scrappy, free-kick filled affair. Chelsea were still the better side, with Daniel Sturridge looking the most likely to score, but the number of stoppages rather ruined any fluidity the Blues were trying to impose upon the match. Sturridge was denied a couple of times by 19-year-old Leno, who was fantastic on the night, and the match entered the break with the hosts frustrated that they'd yet to break the deadlock.
That doesn't mean there weren't encouraging signs, of course - Chelsea looked quicker and sharper than they did at any point during the Sunderland match, and it was clear that Mata and Sturridge in particular are deserved starters on the wings. Meireles and Mikel were also excellent in the middle of the pitch, and even though Malouda didn't manage to do much in in the first 45 minutes, he was hardly bad out there.
The second half did not open well for the good guys, with the defence going through a really poor spell. Fortunately, Leverkusen failed to take advantage of Chelsea's inability to get across the halfway line without giving the ball away, despite an excellent chance for old friend Michael Ballack, who shot straight at Cech's legs when put clean through. At the other end of the pitch, Leno saved brilliantly when a rare Chelsea attack looked like a threat to result in a goal, denying Sturridge once again as the England under-21 striker met a teasing cross with a volley from four yards away.
Andre Villas-Boas had had enough of the 4-3-3, pulling off Meireles and Sturridgeand replacing them with Nicolas Anelka and Frank Lampard, shifting his personnel into s 4-4-2 diamond with Mata as the tip. As soon as they shifted to the diamond, Chelsea were unstoppable.
David Luiz was the man to break the deadlock, surging through the Leverkusen defence before laying a pass to Malouda out wide. Malouda pinged in a first-time pass to Torres, who layed the ball off for the Brazilian centre half, who hadn't stopped running. The 23-year-old then hit a finish of which any striker would be proud, curling the ball around a despairing dive by Leno and just inside the far post.
Chelsea were rampant, and Mata forced two saves from Leno in quick succession immediately after the goal. Anelka too should have found the scoresheet after excellent work by Malouda only for his header to be called back for offside - nobody's quite sure who the supposedly offside player was, though. A second goal was necessary to calm Chelsea nerves a little as Leverkusen still looked to hit the Blues with a sucker punch, and it was Fernando Torres who inspired it, albeit very late on.
Torres, who'd combined moments of brilliance with those of utter farce throughout the match, opted for one of the latter when he hopped over a tackle to burst clean through on the left. He could have opted for a shot from a tight angle - with his goal drought, I don't think anyone would have blamed him - but instead cute Leno out of the picture with a pullback for Mata, who converted one of the easiest goals he'll ever score to make it 2-0 in the 92nd minute and put the game well and truly out of reach.
With Valencia drawing 0-0 against Belgium in Genk, Chelsea go two points clear at the top of Group E with the win. A trip to the Mestalla is to follow, and if Chelsea can get a win in Spain they'll be in total command of the group. This was a good win, and there was a stretch in the second half when the Blues played their best football of the season. The fact that this coincides with the return of one shaggy-haired defensive messiah... well, you can draw your own conclusions.