Well this has a very different feel to it than the last round did. Chelsea again hit the road for the opening leg, and the road has been extremely unkind to Chelsea in the Champions League this season. Having drawn or lost every road tie to date this year, taking three points away from Portugal (so to speak) would be a huge plus for Chelsea. Benfica is a tough place to play, and emotions would surely be running high with so many player on the squad having a history playing in Portugal.
Roberto Di Matteo turned a few heads with his lineup today, leaving Frank Lampard and Jose Bosingwa out of the squad in favor of Raul Meireles and team mascot Paulo Ferriera. John Obi Mikel started in place of Michael Essien, Kalou was on in place of Danny Sturridge, and Fernando Torres led the line as opposed to Ivorian Didier Drogba. Had AVB run this lineup out there, we'd have surely been calling for his head. Most seemed willing to wait and see with Di Matteo though, and luckily things went fairly well with all his moves.
The first half got underway with both teams playing somewhat cautiously. Chelsea had scored first in all of their away CL fixtures to date, but they started out with the mindset of not opening up too many chances for Benfica. With that in mind, the game tended to be dominated in the midfield early on, with both sides happy to attempt to control the midfield. That generally led to a slow 15 minutes of action, with only Benfica really creating half a chance in that spell.
Fifteen minutes in we'd start to see the first cracks in the Benfica defense. Ramires and Torres would start to get in behind the much slower Benfica defenders, and while Chelsea did little but produce a few corners they began to show the foundation of a solid counter attack.
Raul Meireles would attempt to singlehandedly put Benfica in the lead, getting a stupid yellow for a ridiculous challenge on Gaitan. Benfica would come close from the set piece, and they'd continue to look dangerous in the air throughout the contest.
Fernando Torres was having a "good Torres" type of performance today. As the first half went along, he created practically everything that looked like a chance for Chelsea. He took a pass from David Luiz and aggressively fired it on net, and shortly thereafter made an ambitious run where he'd fire over the bar. While Chelsea didn't look like they were knocking down the door to the Benfica goal, Torres did appear to be a threat to score.
Halftime came and went with no changes to either side. Benfica would come out in the second half pressing the attack. They'd cause us a few early scares with some high crosses into the box, as Chelsea looked a little vulnerable to the aerial bombardment. Benfica pressing forward did seem to open up the counter for Chelsea, and the speed of Ramires, Torres, and Kalou was looking to be a threat. Juan Mata would come very close, rounding the keeper on a counter but hitting the post on a very tough angle. The well deserved goal was coming though...
Ramires put Torres through on the right side, and despite being fouled Torres ran through the contact to play the ball anyway. He drove into the box on the right hand side, passing on a tough angle to shoot to put a cross across the face of goal. Salomon Kalou was waiting, and he calmly placed the ball under the diving keeper to put Chelsea ahead. Just like that it was 1-0 good guys with 20 minutes to play.
Having conceded the away goal to Chelsea, Benfica would get a bit more aggressive the rest of the way. They begin to exploit the weakness Chelsea was showing to the aerial assault they were putting on, but in doing so they really appeared vulnerable on the counter attack. Despite looking somewhat dangerous, Benfica were lucky to escape without conceding again. Full time would be blown with Chelsea winning 1-0.
Chelsea are now in great shape for the return trip to Stamford Bridge next week. They have an away goal an a 1 goal lead. Squad selection will be interesting next week. Gary Cahill and Didier Drogba would be sensible with Benfica looking good in the air. Luiz and Torres look like a great plan due to the fact that Benfica will have to attack and open themselves to the counter. Either way, Chelsea are now in a great position to move on in the competition. Let's all cross our fingers and hope Milan take it to Barcelona tomorrow, as it's looking more likely that we'll reach the semi-final yet again. Well done Blues, no let's look ahead to Villa on the weekend.