It will take more than an inspired substitution for Oscar finally arrived with the perfect valentine present for the day. A late winner from Oscar ensured this loveless marriage of inconvenience remains intact.
Chelsea were stumbling to a tame draw, against a team who have not played a competitive game since December, when interim boss Benitez threw on the Brazilian as an 81st-minute substitute.
The Brazilian certainly loves Europe, even the Europa League. His coolly taken goal just eight minutes from time at the Generali Stadium last night was his sixth on the Continent this season. The other five, of course, came in the Champions League, of which Chelsea are momentarily the holders. But those glory days in Munich last May when they lifted that trophy seemed a long, long time ago last night in snowbound Prague.
This is one of the only two trophies Chelsea have any hope of winning this season and, thanks to the Brazilian’s effort, we are on the progress to the last 16. The Chelsea manager admitted: “We started well and early on we were in control. Although we had a lot of attempts on goal, we have to be more clinical. Now we have the away goal and we have to finish the job at home.”
This result, following Saturday’s 4-1 win at the DW Stadium, saw Chelsea claim back-to-back wins for the first time since December.
Marin is an irregular starter but he was Chelsea’s brightest player in the opening period. His movement and link-up play offering the likeliest source of a breakthrough, but he was undermined by familiar failings elsewhere.
Benitez was confident enough to leave skipper John Terry who missed the Wigan win with a knee injury was on the bench with Ashley Cole, in a side showing three changes. Terry has started only twice under Benitez, whose faith in Fernando Torres remains firm, although the Spaniard was the only available strike option with Demba Ba ineligible.
After Frank Lampard’s early shot from 25 yards was held at the second attempt by keeper Tomas Vaclik, Eden Hazard twice tried to engineer an opening for Torres. But on each occasion the World Cup winner did not contest good crosses into the six-yard box. That just about summed up his night and he never looked like ending a run of just one goal in his last 13 games. He missed a straightforward effort after 35 minutes and sliced a second-half shot out for a throw-in.
The first chance came after a spell of Sparta pressure that encouraged them to push forward and get caught on the break. Marko Marin found Hazard down the left and the Belgian picked out Juan Mata with a cross-field pass. Instead of shooting, Mata teed-up Torres, whose current confidence levels were summed up by a weak toe-poke which did not trouble Vaclik. Mata and Lampard then combined before the ball fell to Torres, who had slightly over-run it and could not get a shot away in a crowded area.
Lampard shot straight at Vaclik before the break and on the restart had to make a last-ditch interception to deny Ladislav Krejci a chance. Chelsea were giving the ball away readily, with Lampard and Marin among the culprits, and were creating few chances. Torres’ evening was summed up when he shot right-footed from 20 yards with the ball slicing high and going out for a throw-in.
But the withdrawal of Mata – rather than his international team-mate – prompted the breakthrough. His replacement Oscar injected pace into proceedings and received a return pass from Hazard, before clinically finishing into the bottom corner within I suppose 40 seconds in the pitch!!
It brought relief to Benitez and the estimated 1,000 Chelsea fans who made the trip to Prague, embracing a Thursday-night schedule that could see them tour the stag party capitals of Europe, with a possible date in Amsterdam against Ajax looming in the last eight after they beat Steaua Bucharest 2-0 in Amsterdam.
- Sparta Prague 0-1 Chelsea: Match report and pictures (thesun.co.uk)
- Latest Sports News: Oscar nets late winner in Prague (journallive.co.uk)
- Live Sport Reports: Oscar nets late winner in Prague (walesonline.co.uk)
- Sparta Prague 0 Chelsea 1 – match report: Oscar comes off bench to score (dailymail.co.uk)
- Sparta Prague vs. Chelsea: Europa League Odds, Preview and Prediction (bleacherreport.com)