FOX Soccer Exclusive
Chelsea saves English blushes
Chelsea saved English blushes on Wednesday in Istanbul, becoming the first Premier League team to score in the knockout round of Champions League play this season. Yes, it's come to this.
The Blues let a dominant opening slip away to collect a 1-1 draw in Istanbul against Galatasaray, a result that gives the Blues the edge of an away goal, but will leave Jose Mourinho mighty frustrated indeed. For, had Chelsea capitalized fully on what had been a barnstorming start, they might be free and clear in this tie. Instead, they face a nervy game at Stamford Bridge against a Turkish team that grew into the game and eclipsed the giants by the end.
It looked like the Blues would run away with the affair after a frantic twenty-minute start. Roberto Mancini fielded an attacking side that also left huge gaps down the middle and Chelsea’s speedy midfield took immediate advantage. Fernando Torres breached the Turks’ hapless defense in just the ninth minute, firing into an unguarded net at close range.
It was the first goal that Galatasaray had conceded at home this calendar year, and it was no less than Chelsea deserved after a nervous start from the home side that combined comedy with tragedy. Galatasaray had tried to play a high line to pull the trap, but Andre Schurrle popped a splitting ball through the central defense, Cesar Azpilicueta ran onto it to draw the attention of Fernando Muslera, and with the keeper in no-man’s land, Torres was free to open his account.
In fact, Muslera had gifted Willian just four minutes earlier with a “what the heck was he thinking?” pass right to the Chelsea man that was lofted over what remained of the Galatasaray defense and toward the net. Willian was unlucky to see if deflected wide; the Turks were lucky to still be in the game. Not ten minutes had elapsed.
Mancini was quickly forced to shore up the gaps in midfield, yanking winger (and Champions League debutant) Izet Hajrovic after only half an hour and sending Didier Drogba up top as a lone striker. It proved to be a prescient move: with five men clogging the midfield, Galatasaray finally started to find some purchase, with Alex Telles’ speculative effort forcing Petr Cech to tip the ball around his post, and Wesley Sneijder starting to get a bit more involved.
There was some controversy late in the half when Galatasaray had the ball in the net only to see it chalked off and John Terry booked. The Turks had attempted a quick throw-in but the Blues’ captain had held a ball and dumped it into the middle of the field. With two balls on the pitch, ref Carlos Carballo was forced to blow the play dead and the Cech’s credit, he made no attempt on the ball at all.
After the break, the game flipped. First, Drogba nearly scored just inside an hour, only to see Selcuk Inan stab the ball off Cech’s post with the bottom of his boot. It was a remarkable let-off, but Chelsea would not escape twice.
Off a corner kick from Sneijder, Terry lost his man, allowing Aurelien Chedjou to slip in and volley home from three yards. One could argue that Cech might have done better on the play; no one will argue that Terry did a decent job marking his charge on the play.
As the home crowd howled, Chelsea shrunk, and Sneijder and Felipe Melo started to pull the strings even tighter. Mourinho reacted quickly to the goal, shuffling in the reliable strangler John Obi Mikel and the aged Samuel Eto’o. Yet, with fifteen to play, Alex Tellas forced Cech into a brilliant stop up high with a curving shot straight on net that almost broke the Blues’ hearts. The Blues breathed some sighs of relief when the final whistle finally went.
Chelsea now become, by default, England’s best hope for the next round of the Champions League. With Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United all losing 2-0, the pressure will be on the Blues to restore a hint of dignity to a Premier League that likes to call itself the world’s best. On the evidence of the night, Chelsea are exactly what Mourinho has maintained they are: a work in progress that lacks a world-class striker. The Turks, albeit at home, gave them all they wanted tonight. They may give them that and more in three weeks time.
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