Despite the nervous finale to their 3-2 defeat to Rubin Kazan, Chelsea were good value for their passage through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League.
The last 20 minutes might have slightly raised the anxiety levels amongst Chelsea supporters though the tension was not in keeping with the rest of the tie. A couple of lapses in defensive concentration aside – more of which later – the two legs of this quarter-final were almost entirely controlled by Chelsea. They might not have dominated territory or possession in the Luzhniki Stadium but they were largely able to control the tempo of the match until the final quarter.
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Chelsea’s only major concern from outside their own potential failings has been the man in the middle. The referee effectively scored two of Rubin Kazan’s goals in this tie with the Russians having been awarded two laughable penalties across the two games, which they duly converted. Gianluca Rocchi deemed that John Terry was culpable of deliberate handball in the first game at Stamford Bridge despite the ball striking his arm from point-blank range. Yet that ineptitude was outdone by Firat Aydinus in the away leg with the representative from Turkey somehow deciding that Aleksandr Ryazantsev’s scandalous dive in the penalty area was worthy of a spot-kick. If that sounds like sour grapes then the wink offered by the offending player after the award together with the ironic laughs from the ‘guilty’ Cesar Azpilicueta should put paid to those accusations.
Without the generosity of the officials, the tie would have been over as a contest even before the second leg kicked off though, in an attempt to clutch at a positive, at least it kept spectators on the edge of their seats until the final whistle. In fact, events appeared to be conspiring in Chelsea’s favour. The match being played in a stadium that had filled only 25 per cent of its seats was a huge advantage to the visitors, removing the hostile element that a tightly-packed partisan ground can provide. With their usual home deemed impractical by UEFA due to the harsh weather in that part of central Russia, the switch to Moscow let the Blues off the hook somewhat.
To add to the comfort, the pre-match concerns about the artificial pitch favouring Rubin proved to be unfounded which really should not have been that much of a surprise. The Luzhniki is not their usual home and while they have used it for a handful of European ties and when visiting the big teams of the Russian capital, they are hardly acquainted with every blade of (plastic) grass. The uneven surface caused problems for both sides and the exaggerated bounce actually played into Chelsea’s hands more often than not with the Rubin players finding it particularly hard to judge, especially in the first half.
If there was one aspect of the match that will genuinely worry Rafael Benitez and his players, it was the ease with which the hosts managed to get on the end of crosses – an avenue that yielded two goals. Of course, when the delivery is of high quality then it is always difficult to combat though the regularity with which Rubin exploited this area was disturbing. The initial reaction is to point a finger at Terry and dismiss him as a diminishing force, no longer capable of commanding the penalty area with the same authority. There is no doubt that the club captain is no longer the force of old, though to simply blame him would be too simplistic; he can hardly be asked to mark each of his team-mates men as well as his own. If so, then David Luiz – as perhaps the senior centre-back if recent selections are taken into account – should be equally to blame.
The problem emanated from the fact that none of the Chelsea defenders within the vicinity of the dropping ball chose to attack the cross. As a unit, they were far too pedestrian and became easy targets thanks to the well-timed runs of the opposition. Petr Cech also showed moments of indecision which generally resulted in him rooting himself to his line and denying the back four the assistance they craved when the crosses were raining in during the second half.
Although the starting line-up will be much changed against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final, it will be an area that Benitez will be keen to remedy in the short period of preparation prior to that date at Wembley. The likes of Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure will not need a second invitation.
Defensive uncertainty aside, there should be plenty of confidence flowing through the squad. The 5-4 aggregate win over Rubin Kazan has seen Chelsea reach the eighteenth semi-final of the Roman Abramovich era. If Messrs Eden Hazard and Juan Mata are at their best, Chelsea could be in their fifth FA Cup final in that same period which would not be a bad return for what has been another traumatic campaign.