Chelsea will almost certainly still progress to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, and the chances are that Wednesday’s 1-1 home draw against Schalke 04 will prove to have been of far more significance to the visitors.
It was a frustrating night for Chelsea and one that, after such an imperious start to the season in the Barclays Premier League suggested it might not quite have such depth of resources as it had appeared.
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Last season, Chelsea was undone by a failure to finish off sides that sat deep against it, a problem that seemed in the early weeks of this season to have been alleviated by the arrival of Diego Costa, scorer of seven goals in four games coming into the match. The Spain international, though, was left out of the starting lineup, presumably with an eye to protecting his suspect hamstring ahead of Sunday’s vital Premier League clash against Manchester City.
That meant a first start in his second spell at the club for Didier Drogba, whose last act for Chelsea in the Champions League was to roll in the winning penalty in the final against Bayern Munich in 2012. For all the goodwill towards him, there was a rustiness about the 36 year old’s play. It’s easy, of course, when a player misses chances to blame his age, but a couple of heavy touches suggested a player who is not quite yet back in prime form.
John Terry missed that game through suspension, but he captained the side again on Wednesday, making his 600th start in all competitions for the club. Whatever the doubts about his personality, his importance in establishing the club naming Europe’s elite over the past decade cannot be doubted.
Schalke has started the Bundesliga season appallingly, taking a solitary point from its first three games and being knocked out of the League Cup by the third-flight side Dynamo Dresden, a run only partly explained by a desperate injury list that included Benedikt Howedes, Felipe Santana, Sead Kolasinac, Joël Matip, Jan Kirchhoff, Jefferson Farfán, Atsuto Uchida, Leon Goretzka and Marcel Sobottka.
There was a hint of unrest behind the scenes when a message appeared on the Facebook page of Tranquillo Barnett, the Switzerland midfielder complaining that he had been left on the bench for Saturday’s game against Borussia Monchengladbach and encouraging the opposition. He subsequently claimed a friend had had access to his phone without his consent.
There was a sense Jen Keller’s side was there for the taking and that feeling seemed to be confirmed when the home side was ahead after 11 minutes. Schalke felt Max Meyer was fouled by Cesc Fabregas as he was dispossessed in the middle of his own half — and certainly the Chelsea man’s follow-through clattered into the shins of his opponent — but Croatian referee Ivan Bebek allowed play to continue and Eden Hazard laid in Fabregas to score his first goal for Chelsea.
Fabregas should have doubled Chelsea’s advantage after 37 minutes, side-footing over from the penalty spot after Branislav Ivanovic had cut the ball back. With Chelsea seeming in total control, though, it seemed to switch off in the minutes immediately before halftime, Kevin-Prince Boateng having a fierce long-ranger pushed wide by Thibaut Courtois before Julian Draxler wandered through a couple of slightly half-hearted challenges before scuffing his shot wide.
Halftime brought a refocusing and Ivanovic and Drogba both went close in the early minutes of the half. But 62 minutes in, Schalke levelled against the run of play. Fabregas, having won possession in the build-up to the first goal, was dispossessed by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Julian Draxler carried it deep into Chelsea territory then played in Huntelar with a clever reverse pass the Dutch striker taking it onto his right foot before scoring with a fine low finish.
Mourinho reacted by bring on Oscar for Ramires and then, 12 minutes after the goal, on came Costa and Loic Remy for Drogba and Willian. There was almost an immediate impact. Just two minutes after his introduction, Remy was presented with a golden opportunity at the back post as Ralf Fahrmann, the Schalke keeper, flapped at a cross. His shot was goal-bound, but was blocked on the line by a remarkable header from Roman Neustadter.
The pressure mounted, however. Hazard volleyed just over and then, stretching to reach a Fabegas cross, saw his poked effort brilliantly saved by Fahrmann, who almost had to reach behind himself to claw the ball away. Chelsea had far more chances and was by some way the better side, but it simply couldn’t find the winner.
It’s too early to suggest the problems of last season are recurring, but the question has been raised: Can it still convert possession into goals if Diego Costa isn’t there?