At the end of matchday six in last season's Champions League campaign, Chelsea became the first defending Champions to be demoted to the Europa League. This year, despite only earning two more points in the group stages than they did last time out, they go into the knockout rounds as a top seed. Job done, in other words.
It wasn't an easy ride, however. Basel in particular caused us problems, putting the group in jeopardy by managing to beat us home and away. It came down to the last match to secure top spot (although qualification was assured two weeks prior). Fortunately, the last match was at home against Steaua Bucharest, and Steaua Bucharest are bad.
Steaua had already rolled over for us in Romania, and in truth they handed us the game at Stamford Bridge as well. Chelsea had half a dozen corners before we got to the tenth minute, and eventually one of them was going to go in. It did -- Willian's delivery was flicked towards the far post, where a combination of Demba Ba and Daniel Georgievski bundled past the unfortunate Ciprian Tatarusanu.
Had we kept up that sort of tempo all game, we would have been in for a swashbuckling rout. Unfortunately, the goal took most of the urgency out of Chelsea's play, and the rest of the match was rather sloppy. John Obi Mikel typified our struggles when he gathered in a partially cleared corner and then tried to beat three visiting players, eventually resulting in a break from which Gabriel Iancu really ought to have scored. With the group virtually wrapped up and Steaua being Steaua, there wasn't much motivation for the Blues to stay focused.
Said motivation steadily lessened as the match went on. Basel had a man sent off, and a Schalke win in that game would mean that a draw would see Chelsea top. Schalke managed to grab a goal just after halftime, and from then on there really wasn't much incentive to do anything.
That gives Demba Ba a good excuse for an absolutely ridiculous miss. Willian, who'd been running with serious industry all evening but sadly combining that with zero end product, finally delivered the goods when he scampered inside and slipped in a perfect pass to the striker. With the defence bisected and the goal at his mercy, Ba scooped his shot well over Tatarusanu's crossbar, bringing to mind several legendary misses of Chelsea's past.
Ba -- who had of course already scored -- would get the ball in the back of the net again after a deft pass from John Terry only to see his strike ruled out for offside. Ba wasn't the only one who was struggling in front of goal. Eden Hazard, whose contemptuous dribbling was about the only thing making the match watchable, should have extended Chelsea's lead with a header after good work from Andre Schurrle; back in the first half Branislav Ivanovic was denied by a fine stop from Tatarusani; all chances that would sent passions ablaze had Chelsea not been both ahead and in no danger of being pegged back.
As it stood, however, Chelsea were ahead and were in no danger of being pegged back, so the match had an aura of tired inevitability about it. The Blues would waste their chances to make it a rout, but they were so much better than Steaua that they couldn't help but reap the reward anyway. And it's some reward: the difference between first and second place in these group stages looks like life and death.
We've done alright in these first six games. Now we focus.