Chelsea secures top spot with rally
Chelsea came close to another embarrassing result against Slovakian side Zilina on Tuesday before a second-half turnaround secured the English champions a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge and top spot in Group F of the Champions League.
The decision by under-pressure Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti to play a young, virtually second-string team looked like it was going to spectacularly backfire when Zilina, bottom of the group and without a point, took the lead in the 19th minute through midfielder Babatounde Bello.
But Chelsea, which had already sealed qualification to the last 16 but needed a point to make sure of being group winner, played with more pace in the second half thanks to the halftime introduction of Salomon Kalou, and goals by Daniel Sturridge and Florent Malouda, who turned home the winner in the 86th, completed the hosts' recovery.
"We didn't start very well but we had a good reaction in the second half," Ancelotti said. "We changed the intensity of our play - that was the difference."
Chelsea remained perfect in group play and is six points clear of second-place Marseille ahead of its final game against the French side, which has also qualified.
At halftime, though, it looked as though Chelsea's recent run of poor form, which has seen the team lose three of its last four matches in the Premier League to pile the pressure on Ancelotti, was going to continue.
The chances of Zilina, coming off a tournament-record 7-0 home loss to Marseille last time out, adding to the Blues' current woes were so remote that Ancelotti was happy to give some of his squad's youngsters - such as defenders Jeffrey Bruma and Patrick van Aanholt, midfielder Josh McEachran and forwards Gael Kakuta and Sturridge - some playing time.
Yet Chelsea, which hasn't lost at Stamford Bridge in the tournament's group stage since 2003, started slowly and fell behind when Bello exchanged a one-two with Robert Jez on the edge of the penalty area before toe-poking an 18-yard finish past Ross Turnbull, deputizing for rested first-choice goalkeeper Petr Cech.
The home crowd was stunned as Ancelotti, who was forced on Monday to deny press reports that he was threatening to resign, cut an isolated figure in his technical area, hands in pockets and visibly frustrated.
It could have been even worse for the hosts 10 minutes later, when playmaker Tomas Matjin waltzed through the heart of their defense and had an angled shot palmed away by Turnbull.
"If we play like we did in the first half, it will be impossible (to win the Champions League)," said Ancelotti, who was without injured trio Frank Lampard, John Terry and Michael Essien and chose to rest Petr Cech, Ashley Cole and Alex.
It was one-way traffic for the rest of the match, with Sturridge shooting narrowly wide and over and also having a fierce shot saved before the break, while Malouda headed straight at Zilina goalkeeper Martin Dubravka in the 36th.
Kalou began the second half instead of Kakuta and had an immediate impact, shooting inches wide in the 47th before his cross from the left squirmed through a raft of bodies for Sturridge to tap in at the far post four minutes later.
With Zilina barely getting out of its own half, Drogba - Chelsea's captain for the night - almost made it 2-1 when his free kick was tipped acrobatically onto the post by Dubravka in the 61st.
The frame of the goal was rocking again in the 71st when left back Van Aanholt's arrowed 25-yarder crashed against the post.
The onslaught continued as Malouda smashed a shot against the sidenetting in the 82nd but the France winger couldn't miss when he ran on to Drogba's header to steer in the winner.
Zilina coach Pavel Hapal was disappointed his side caved in in the second half.
"We thought we were going to go back with a point but luck was not on our side," he said. "Defensively, I thought we were very good."