The Blues may yet become the first club to retain Europe's premier club competition, but Tuesday's humbling highlights that they remain a talented team in transition
By Liam Twomey
It may have been only Chelsea’s third Champions League outing as tournament holders, but the ‘Miracle of Munich’ felt like ancient history on another chastening night against impressive continental opposition.
Shakhtar Donetsk, imbued with a lavish helping of Brazilian invention, overran Roberto Di Matteo’s men every bit as comprehensively as a Falcao-inspired Atletico Madrid did in the Uefa Super Cup final back in August and, were it not for Petr Cech’s heroics and the absence of a frontman on par with the sensational Colombian, they would have got the emphatic scoreline to match.
Both games followed a similar pattern. In Monaco, a ponderous Blues side were ambushed early and took just six minutes to succumb to Falcao’s deadly gifts. In Donetsk, they lasted only three before Luiz Adriano’s deflected shot broke to Alex Teixeira, who slotted home. Luck played its part, but the Ukrainian champions were handed an initiative they never looked likely to relinquish.
Almost immediately committed to chasing the game, Chelsea left far too much room for the likes of Adriano, Teixeira, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho and Willian, who delivered on manager Mircea Lucescu’s pre-match promise to torment the club he reportedly came close to signing for in January.
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Eden Hazard’s costly mistake on the halfway line which led to Fernandinho’s winner moments after the interval was the symptom of a much wider malaise, and Oscar’s late consolation only briefly raised hopes of a comeback which would have been as undeserved as it appeared unlikely.
But defeat, though damaging, is not the disaster it could have been for Di Matteo’s men. Shakhtar might live to regret not making their vast superiority count in a tight group where goal difference may yet come into play, while Juventus’ shock draw with Nordsjaelland – their ninth European stalemate in as many matches – keeps the holders’ destiny well and truly in their own hands.
Victory over the Ukrainian champions when the two sides clash at Stamford Bridge in a fortnight would lend Group E a much more agreeable complexion to Chelsea eyes. There is more than enough talent within the ranks to avenge Tuesday’s humbling, although a vast improvement will be required to check the considerable momentum Lucescu’s men have built up over the past year.
Before then, Di Matteo will seek a reaction when Manchester United come to west London on Sunday, and take comfort in the fact that the visitors appear at least as vulnerable. If recent performances are anything to go by, there will be goals at both ends, and plenty of them.
It is just as well that European champions are not decided in October, because at present none of the Premier League’s finest appear remotely capable of scaling the heights. Chelsea’s new and exciting crop deservedly sit top of the table after a thrilling start, but setbacks against continental opposition are a truer reflection of their status as a work in progress.
Encouraging domestic signs have so far dimmed any sense of panic felt as a result of the necessary summer departure of Didier Drogba, but the archetypal ‘man for the big occasion’ was sorely missed in Donetsk. Chelsea need Fernando Torres, a laboured presence in the game, to step up and shoulder the talismanic burden on big nights. Failing that, they need to find someone else who will.
Di Matteo is also still searching for a way to balance his side’s new formidable creative hub with the defensive resilience which provided the foundation for last season’s astonishing success. Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel have shown promise as a defensive shield in recent weeks, but both must learn that passive displays like the one against Shakhtar are not conducive to success at the highest level.
On the eve of his side’s opening-day clash with Juventus last month, the Italian insisted his team were up for the challenge of “doing the impossible” and becoming the first club to retain the Champions League. Such glory may still be achieved, but Tuesday’s humbling offered a timely reminder that the road will be every bit as long and hard the second time around.
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