Dark skies, bad omens, and plenty of tension led up to Chelsea's opening match of the 2015-16 Champions League proper. A terrible start to the Premier League campaign had brought out all the comparisons and parallels to Mourinho's demise during his first spell in charge of the Champions of England almost exactly to the day eight years ago. Then, an infamous 1-1 vs. Rosenborg in front of a half-empty Stamford Bridge signaled the end. Would Maccabi Tel-Aviv play the same role this time around? As the rain bucketed down and Ruben Loftus-Cheek collected a yellow card 30 seconds into the match and Eden Hazard skied a penalty kick well over the bar a few minutes later, it looked like they just might.
Jose Mourinho says the penalty miss was a good test of character in a period when things had been going against the players. #CFC— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) September 16, 2015
With just 1 win from 10 matches since the start of preseason, Mourinho rang a few well overdue changes to the starting lineup. Captain John Terry, Vice-captain Branislav Ivanovic, Most important player Nemanja Matic, Last year's leading scorer Diego Costa all took a seat on the bench. In came Baba Rahman at left back for his debut, 19-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield, and Loic Remy up front for his first start since the Community Shield. Fabregas remained, perhaps more out of a lack of any other passing option than actual merit, while the attacking band was boosted by the return from injury of Oscar. At the back, Gary Cahill took the armband, Zouma made his fourth straight start, and Begovic continued in goal. Eden Hazard, Willian, and Cesar Azpilicueta completed the starting eleven.
We had a sneaky twelfth man as well -- no, not the referee who booked Loftus-Cheek for a high boot but ignored the same from a Maccabi man not five minutes later -- Tal Ben Haim (the first, the elder, the however we differentiate him from the other Tal Ben Haim). The ex-Chelsea Tal Ben Haim, defender in name if not quite ability felt so at home at Stamford Bridge that just a few minutes into the game, he gave the ball away to Remy who found Willian who was then promptly taken out by the goalkeeper. A simple penalty decision for the referee, though he did manage to bungle things a bit by not sending off the 20-year-old as well, a decision that threatened to loom larger when Hazard bungled the penalty itself, too.
The way the season had been going, it perhaps wasn't such a surprising miss. All the worst things all the time, that's this season for ya. But not for Willian! He took matters into his own hands, and having already run the Maccabi left back ragged, he made fools of their goalkeeper again by curling a free kick into the box that evaded everybody's outstretched legs and arms and bounded into the far corner. He was to pay for this transgression of happy vibes by a hamstring injury a few minutes later.
Diego Costa came on to replace him and Chelsea's play promptly dropped a level or two. Shorn of Willian's drive, we were left to watch Eden Hazard continue to disappoint, Costa continue to wander about aimlessly, and Remy do his best-that's-not-good-enough as a makeshift right winger. At least Loftus-Cheek was playing well and the width provided by our attacking full back duo was a welcome change of pace.
Chelsea were still controlling the action to a large degree, but with every passing minute, the possibility of a successful Maccabi counter grew. Granted, the visitors were largely terrible, but even terrible teams can often find paydirt on a counter. Fortunately for us, they were not very good at those either, with most of them ending up in panicked, hopeful long-shots from Eran Zahavi. It wasn't until the 90th minute that they posed any actual threat (one of their midfielders skying a shot over the empty net from 6 yards out), but by then we were well out of sight.
The comfortable part of the match started at the half-time whistle, just prior to which, helpful Tal Ben Haim popped up again to give away another penalty. Oscar took this one and he made no mistake. The two-goal half-time lead was stretched to three in the 58th minute, the winning combination of Fabregas-to-Costa finally making an appearance this season after leading us to the promise land last season. Welcome back, Magic Hat. Fabregas then made it four, ten minutes from the end, finishing off a flowing 4-v-2 counter-attack after Remy's shot was parried.
Bertrand Traore had been one of the four runners in that move, the youngster making his official Chelsea debut as a substitute for the impressive Loftus-Cheek. Traore himself came close to scoring as well, but his curling effort went just wide. Further happy news were had with the returns from injury of both Oscar and Ramires, not to mention the long-overdue return of Clean Sheet as well (not seen since the beginning of March).
There was even good news elsewhere in our group, as Dynamo Kiev and FC Porto played out a 2-2 draw in Ukraine. And, just for a bit of banter in the banter-free zone, Arsenal lost in Zagreb, making Chelsea the only English team to win on Matchday 1 in the Champions League. Once again, we're carrying the coefficient. No, it's ok. No need to thank us.
Mourinho on flying the flag: "I think its sad. I think it's bad.I wan't MC, MU & Arsenal to lose in Premier League.Not in Champions League."— Dan Levene (@danlevene) September 16, 2015
So, 4-0, three points, clean sheet, new haircut and clean shave for Mourinho, renewed focus, squad rotation, good feels, and happiness. Is this finally the real start of the season? Arsenal await.