A goalkeeper error redeemed a refereeing error. After a tactically excellent performance, Chelsea seemed to have been denied avictory in its Europa League semifinal by a combination of wastefulness in front of goal and by a baffling penalty decision that handed Basel an 87th-minute equalizer. But with the very last kick of the game, Yann Sommer, the Basel keeper, weakly palmed David Luiz free kick into his own net to give Chelsea a 2-1 win that was the very least it deserved.
There has been a strange sense in this Europa League campaign that Chelsea has been playing within itself. It has never looked especially impressive, never dismissed a side with the sort of imperious ease it might have been expected to, and yet every time there has been a semblance of pressure – at home against Sparta Prague and Steaua Bucharest, away against Rubin Kazan – it has rapidly found a goal to settle nerves. Chelsea’s away record, as a result, has not been great – four defeats out of seven games over both continental competitions this season – but when it mattered, when it faced a team against which it couldn’t take afford a lapse in focus, it produced a performance of great professionalism that should ease some of the pressure on next week’s second leg (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET).
That in turn means Rafa Benitez, whose job in recent weeks has been juggling his resources to try keep fatigue at bay , can place additional emphasis on the Premier League games either side of the tie – home to Swansea City and away to Manchester United – as the club chases qualification for next season’s Champions League.
It’s a challenge Benitez seems to relish. As a young child, he obsessed about the board game Stratego and its obvious even from a brief conversation that the aspect of the game he most enjoys is the tactical side. Most of his press conferences follow a similar pattern: polite, cursory answers to most questions followed by lengthy disquisitions on anything to do with player distribution or strategy. And tactically, Benitez got it spot on in Basel.
Basel’s strength, and the way they exposed Tottenham Hotspur in the last round, are their wingers, backed up by aggressive fullbacks who are not afraid to overlap. Perhaps the occasion inhibited Basel – it was its first ever European semifinal, and such local luminaries as tennis star Roger Federer and Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri were there to watch – but it was also stymied by Benitez’s decision to field two dynamic, disciplined players on the flanks: Victor Moses and Ramires. That meant omitted Juan Mata and Oscar, but Benitez was vindicated by the lack of attacking impact made by the Basel fullbacks Philipp Degen and Park Joo-Ho, which in turn reduced the effectiveness of the wingers Valentin Stocker and Mohamed Saleh.
Eden Hazard, meanwhile, reveled in his free role behind Fernando Torres, constantly probing and creating. While Chelsea didn’t dominate possession, it had sufficient chances to have effectively ended the tie by halftime. Hazard was the origin of the opener, after 12 minutes, his pass releasing Cesar Azpilicueta down the right. Although Yann Sommer saved from Frank Lampard as he met the fullback’s cross, the subsequent corner brought the breakthrough, the ball cannoning in off Moses after Branislav Ivanovic had made an initial attempt. Later, Sommer then saved well from Ramires, while Hazard was let down by his first touch as he charged into the box. Even Torres hit a post from Hazard’s cut back in the second half.
Stocker had also hit a post as Basel upped the tempo early in the second half. Chelsea, however, was still comfortable and looked like holding out for what would have been just a second clean sheet in its last 11 European games. But then came the penalty.
Usually when players and managers say they haven’t seen an incident, it’s a diplomatic way of avoiding controversy. When David Luiz said he hadn’t what led to the penalty, it was because there was nothing to see. Zoua headed across goal and Azpilicueta got in front of Stocker to nudge the ball away from danger. Not a single Basel player appealed and, when Czech referee Pavel Kravlovec gave a penalty, not a single Chelsea player protested, presumably because they had no idea what they were protesting against.
Other sides might have been derailed by that, but the resilience that won Chelsea the Champions League last season is still there. Where Basel, as the home side, having just scored, might have been expected to mount a late siege, most of the final minutes were played in its half. Oscar snatched at a loose ball in the box and John Terry headed at Sommer from close range before finally, in the fourth or four minutes of injury time, David Luiz threaded a free kick through a crowd of players to catch out an unsighted Sommer.
“We had enough chances to score another goal and this penalty was a surprise to everyone,” said a satisfied Benitez. “It was a very strange decision. To score an away goal is great, to score two and win is even better.”
Chelsea, then, is firm favorite to complete the job next week and book its place in the final. Who it will face in Amsterdam is less clear. Fenerbahce beat Benfica 1-0 in the first leg in Istanbul, but it could easily have won more comfortably, hitting the woodwork on four occasions, one of them Cristian’s penalty in the final minute of the first half. Egemen Korkmaz finally got the goal with 16 minutes to play.
Korkmaz’s goal 18 minutes from time was scant reward for Fenerbahce, who could have taken a more commanding lead to Portugal after Cristian Baroni hit a first half penalty against the post, while Moussa Sow and Dirk Kuyt also rattled the frame of the goal. Both clubs resume their tussle next week (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET)
FOXSoccer.com wire services contributed to this report.