Brazil defender David Luiz and Spain winger Juan Mata scored second-half goals as Chelsea kicked off its quest for an elusive Champions League title with a 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in their Group E match on Tuesday.
Luiz produced the kind of finish that had proved beyond his team’s misfiring strikers by running onto Fernando Torres’ lay-off and bending a sublime strike into the bottom corner in the 67th minute.
With almost the last kick of the game, Mata capped a lively display by tapping home from close range after Torres had broken free down the left.
Chelsea has reached the semifinals of the competition in five of the last six years but has yet to satisfy the trophy demands of billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
Fresh from leading Porto to the Europa League title last season, Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas made the step up to the Champions League for the first time, with one of his remits undoubtedly to end the club’s barren run in Europe’s elite competition.
The Blues deserved the victory against a hard-working, efficient Leverkusen side in a match between two former finalists but it needed the intervention of Luiz, marauding forward in typically Brazilian fashion, to set them on their way.
Villas-Boas’ decision to rest captain John Terry and central midfielder Frank Lampard – two of Chelsea’s stalwarts for the past decade – in view of Sunday’s Premier League match at Manchester United was a brave one, considering the visitors’ second-place finish in the Bundesliga last season, and almost backfired.
Indeed, Leverkusen – the Champions League runner-up in 2002 – was denied a goal after less than three minutes when Simon Rolfes’ close-range header was ruled out for an earlier push by Omer Toprak.
Chelsea immediately went down the other end and was the victim of another disallowed goal, with Raul Meireles judged to have been offside when he applied a flicked finish to a backheeled effort by Torres.
Meireles, signed on transfer deadline day from Liverpool, was the replacement for Lampard and he slotted in well in the attacking midfield role, linking up well with Mata and Daniel Sturridge, who drew the best save of the first half out of goalkeeper Bernd Leno following a snap shot in the 32nd minute.
Torres, meanwhile, toiled up front on his recall to the team after being dropped against Sunderland on Saturday, creating a couple of half-chances for himself in the first half but again looking bereft of confidence with just one goal to his name since club-record 50 million pound (then $81 million) move from Liverpool in January.
Leverkusen, largely kept in check in the first half, wasn’t without chances after the break, though.
Former Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack almost scored in the 57th on his return to Stamford Bridge when he ran onto Stefan Kiessling’s lay-off but poked his shot straight at goalkeeper Petr Cech, Chelsea’s captain for the night. Two minutes later, young Germany forward Andre Schurrle then scuffed a great chance at Cech when free on goal.
The home crowd grew increasingly frustrated but moments after Leno tipped Sturridge’s glancing volley against the post in the 63rd, the goalkeeper was finally beaten by Luiz.
Strengthened by the introduction of Lampard and Nicolas Anelka from the bench and with a previously flat atmosphere suddenly energized, Chelsea asserted its authority and Mata, collecting an Anelka cut-back, saw his fierce shot tipped over by Leno.
The Spain international claimed his goal, however, with seconds remaining in an ultimately fruitful night for Chelsea.