Unsung heroes allow Chelsea to dream

Chelsea got their first road win in Europe at the right time, taking a massive step toward the semifinals with a 1-0 win over Benfica in Lisbon tonight. Spearheaded by a dynamic performance from Fernando Torres and a cool finish from Salomon Kalou, Chelsea looked composed and confident, and will now defend their lead in a week’s time at Stamford Bridge.

In our other match of the day, APOEL Nicosia kept the most unlikely of all European dreams alive for nearly 75 minutes. But the Cypriots had no answers for Jose Mourinho’s subs and the result was that Real Madrid cruised to an eventual 3-0 victory. The Spanish giants will host APOEL next week at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The Blues have been, to put it mildly, erratic. Last week, they slumped to Manchester City and then looked scared against Spurs in a goalless draw. They are facing a massive fight just to finish in the top four in England and badly needed a lift.

They got it, and tonight it was not the “old guard” that answered the call. Torres, Ramires, Juan Mata and David Luiz were all outstanding in a battling display that saw them smother Benfica’s offense in the first half, before they seized the night in the second.

In a mild surprise, Roberto Di Matteo left Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien on the bench, recognizing that the trio had looked out of puff on the weekend. The shock of the lineup was the interim manager’s faith in little-used sub Paulo Ferreira in place of the injured Branislav Ivanovic.

The former Porto man has been a castaway much of the season, starting in only one league match (that, a dismal loss to Aston Villa) and seemed an unlikely candidate to stand up to the cat-calls from the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. But, anchored by a season-best showing from captain John Terry, Ferreira both grew in confidence and came into the game. By the time of his removal with ten to play, he looked like a man reclaimed from the heap.

In fact, Di Matteo not only got the tactics, but also the tone right. This was a rare night when the Blues looked like the Chelsea of old.

Fielding a sleeker lineup that was designed to clog the wide channels and limit the movement of Bruno Cesar and Pablo Aimar, they did just that in spades with Luiz and Ramires putting in superb shifts. The former surely wanted to show his old club what they were missing; the latter was simply industrious, covering acres of space and carrying the water when needed.

With Benfica muted, Torres was able to drive at Artur’s net, and he quickly proved up to the task. This also seemed to be the Torres of old, a player with a confident touch on the ball and a solid turn, even if his shots didn’t quite find the frame. There was little of the sense of waste that has so often accompanied his performances this season and no suggestion that his contributions were negligent. Torres and Mata played far closer together than in past matches, a sign that Di Matteo saw what Andre-Villas Boas could not: that this Torres needs more support. When he got it, he was able to work magic.

When Torres sprung forward into space with 15 minutes left, surging into the right-hand channel, you instantly felt something would happen. And when Torres lifted his head up, unselfishly finding Kalou for a deceptively easy goal, it was no less than he and Chelsea deserved.

The question is not now one of ‘old guard’ or ‘new guard,’ but whether the whole of Chelsea can bottle this confidence and interplay. They face Benfica in a week, then Tottenham in a tough FA Cup semifinal. On top of that, the Blues have to make up points on both Spurs and Arsenal.

But if this is the Chelsea we are going to see, then look out. On the evidence, at least for one night in Lisbon, they are back.

In Cyprus, Mourinho watched his team probe and poke at a 10-man APOEL defense for just over an hour. Then he sent on Marcelo and Kaka in the 64th minute. The new men simply carved the Cypriots apart.

Kaka created the first goal for Karim Benzema in the 74th minute and Marcelo made the second for Kaka eight minutes later. Benzema added his second of the night in the final minute, as Real Madrid skewered the toothless home team in the final 15 minutes.

Cristiano Ronaldo was also a major force in the dominant Real show even though he did not get on the scoreboard. His back-heel pass sprung Marcelo to create Kaka’s goal and his perfect through pass sent in Mesut Ozil to make the play that gave Benzema the final tally of the night.

Real Madrid was so dominant that even though Ivan Jovanovic’s team defended resolutely – and without flying into a single wild tackle, no less – it was always just a matter of time. Iker Casillas could have stayed at home and APOEL still would not have scored. In order to contain Real, the Cypriots bunkered so deeply that much of the match was played within 35 yards of the APOEL goal.

The only man who bothered Real at all was Ailton. But ultimately, he was a lone runner without service and it is hard to see how next week’s return game at the Bernabeu will be anything different.

Indeed, Real’s late push will enable Mourinho to concentrate on defending a six-point lead in La Liga. Heck, he can probably win the second leg without even bothering to use his full team before worrying about a Champions League semifinal.