Chelsea needed a kick up the backside, and complacency happily delivered it in the form of NK Maribor. In three Champions League matches so far, the Blues had handily outplayed their opposition, earning two wins and one freak
loss draw. Maribor themselves had been demolished at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, conceding six in an emphatic Chelsea victory. The stage was set for the team to breeze into the knockout rounds and focus on Liverpool this weekend ...
... or so they obviously thought. But the football gods had different plans. Having raised us to greatness, we were then dashed on the jagged rocks of complacency. The first half was marred by a distinct lack of urgency, with Jose Mourinho livid at his sluggish players and the midfield randomly phasing out of existence for the hosts to surge through.
Indeed, it was only the raw speed of Kurt Zouma which prevented Maribor from going ahead, the teenager managing to do just enough to halt a breakaway when one move from Luka Zahovic managed to leave Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic and John Terry trailing in his wake.
Chelsea had their chances, but they were few, far between and mostly wasted, with the most embarrassing of them being Andre Schurrle's miss following a Willian cross. With Jasmin Handanovic's goal wide open, the German got his body shape completely wrong, screwing his shot well wide before finding out he was senselessly offside anyway.
Didier Drogba was also struggling, his touch just a bit too heavy to take advantage of some exquisite through balls from Fabregas. Chelsea just didn't look as though they had the combination of firepower and wherewithal to break through, and the manager threw on both Oscar and Diego Costa at halftime to see if they could could find a goal.
Instead, it was Maribor who opened the scoring.
Cutbacks tend to leave defences in disarray, and here a long looping cross managed to escape the back four and land at the feet of Agim Ibraimi. With Filipe Luis having been sucked deep, there was nobody around to close him down, and Ibraimi responded by setting his feet and curling a delicious effort into the top corner. It was only the third time all season Chelsea had conceded first.
Mourinho's response was immediate. Luis came off, Ramires went on and the Blues settled into a sort of 3-5-2, with Branislav Ivanovic moving to the left and Zouma at RCB. This had predictable results, the most obvious being that the centre of the pitch, already disorganised thanks to consistent poor positioning from the midfielders, became even more chaotic. Maribor nearly took advantage, too, and Ivanovic would have been to blame had Zahovic found the empty net rather than blazed over when he had a great chance on the hour mark.
But slowly, surely, the Slovenian side were pushed back. Diego Costa was sputtering into life. Hazard was dancing. Oscar was weaving those ominous little passes around the edge of the box (and getting fouled inside it only to see the referee wave it off). And, when all else fails, we can hit teams with set pieces.
73 minutes in, Fabregas's corner landed on Terry's head. Rather than going for goal, the centre back flicked on to Matic at the far post, and the big midfielder tapped in for the equaliser. The hosts screamed for offside -- amusingly, those protesting included the two players on the line -- but the goal stood and all seemed slightly happier.
The events of the final few minutes stripped some of that happy away, however. First Hazard, Chelsea's best player outside the box, contrived to miss an extremely easy one on one with the keeper after skipping his way into the area. Then Costa had a perfectly legitimate goal waved away for a phantom Fabregas offside in the buildup.
And then came the moment you knew it wasn't going to be our night: Hazard missed a penalty.
He'd won it with one of those unstoppable runs on the counterattack, faking inside and going back around. Mitja Viler couldn't help but dangle out a leg, tripping the Belgian and leaving the referee with the second most obvious penalty call of the night. Unlike with Oscar, this time he got the decision right, leaving Hazard to ... roll a weak shot in the vague direction of goal, which was easily kept out by Handanovic.
So that was strange.
The positives are that we didn't lose, and it will be quite challenging to fail to finish first in the group. The negatives are that today was a bit crap. Let's move on.