Defending Premier League champion Chelsea claimed a much-needed fillip by thrashing Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in their UEFA Champions League opener on Wednesday night.
For Chelsea, at last, some relief. Jose Mourinho and his side may not take much credit from a simple win over limited opposition, but had something gone wrong, the criticism would have been deafening. And perhaps this wasn’t just a bullet dodged, but a performance that can form the basis for a revival. By the end, Eden Hazard was dancing past players for fun and there was a sense of swagger and self-belief returning.
Article continues below ...
"I’m happy with the result, with the performance," Mourinho told reporters after the win. "But in the same way I’m not in hell with bad results, I’m not now in heaven because we won a game. But it’s a good victory, we played well. Since minute one, we could feel that we were going to win the game.
It was only against Maccabi Tel Aviv but with an Arsenal chastened by defeat to Dinamo Zagreb to come on Saturday, there could be some momentum building. That said, there were still rather more concerns at the back than there probably should have been and any satisfaction in the improved attacking performance must be tempered by an acknowledgement of just how timid, just how poor, Maccabi was.
The evening, inevitably, was colored by memories of the game against Rosenborg eight years ago, Mourinho’s last in his first spell as Chelsea boss. Then, with results going against them, Mourinho railing against the transfer policy (it was the time of his famous rant about how he didn’t have eggs of sufficient quality to make a good omelette), and a touch under 25,000 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea drew 1-1. The crowd was rather healthier here, but the mood before kickoff was not dissimilar, for all Mourinho’s claims that history has no bearing on the present.
The similarities were clear. Defeat in the Community Shield has been followed by three defeats in five league games, leaving Chelsea fourth-bottom of the table. Mourinho has pointed out that he gave his list of targets to the club on April 24, suggesting his frustration that not more was done to bring them in.
The tetchiness that Mourinho showed eight years ago has been apparent again. This season has been a catalogue of spats; with Arsene Wenger, with the club doctor Eva Carneiro and head physio Jon Fearn, with Rafa Benitez and his wife and then, on Saturday, with the Everton manager Roberto Martinez for the heinous crime of conducting his press-conference when Mourinho wanted to conduct his and so delaying him getting on the team bus.
There have, perhaps, been times when Mourinho has been overly loyal to his core of key players — something that led to the weariness that characterized Chelsea towards the end of last season. But here he dropped or rested Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa (although he was called into action after 25 minutes after Willian suffered an injury), which meant a debut for Baba Rahman, Ruben Loftus-Cheek coming into midfield, a return for Oscar and a start for Loic Remy.
The idea was, presumably, to rattle the team, to shake things up and, perhaps, restore confidence against what may be the weakest team Chelsea plays this year. Chelsea was presented with the perfect chance to settle nerves when Willian, bursting through on the right side of the box, was tripped by the Maccabi goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, who was perhaps a little fortunate only to be booked for the foul. Eden Hazard, though, skied his penalty high over the bar — the fifth penalty he has missed out of 37 in his career.
There was, perhaps, at that moment, a thought that Chelsea might pay for that, that a lack of confidence would permeate the side, but Maccabi never looked remotely good enough to apply any pressure to the Premier League champions. Maccabi sat deep, tried to frustrate Chelsea and simply ended up conceding a series of free-kicks around the box. It was always likely one would tell eventually and, sure enough, after 15 minutes Willian put the home side ahead. As against Swansea City on the opening day of the Premier League season, his delivery was probably at least part intended as a cross, but nobody got a touch and the ball bounced past a wrong-footed Rajkevic.
From then on it was only a matter of how many. The second arrived in first-half injury-time from a second penalty, this one converted by Oscar after Ben Haim (I) had tripped Diego Costa following fine work by Loftus-Cheek. Diego Costa volleyed in a Cecs Fabregas pass with his first goal in Europe for Chelsea, then Fabregas knocked in the rebound after Rajkevic had saved from Remy to make it four.
It was a simple win, almost too simple perhaps for the restorative job Chelsea required of it, but still, the box is ticked, a potential pitfall is avoided and Mourinho can take some satisfaction from being the only Premier League manager to have own in the Champions league this week.
"We’ve had a difficult start, but we know the calibre of players we’ve got," Gary Cahill told BT Sport 2 after the match. "We’ve had a slow start, a bad start. (But) winning games breeds confidence, breeds momentum, happiness — and that’s just what we need. It was the perfect game for us. We had a lot of the ball, created a lot of chances, scored some good goals… a convincing win, a clean sheet — everything that we’re looking for at this moment in time."
Information from FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.