By Liam Twomey
Even six thousand miles from Stamford Bridge, Rafa Benitez could not escape the boos, nor the pointed chants of ‘There’s only one Di Matteo’. Yet in spite of it all there were signs of progress, and the possibility that in this chapter of remarkable success in the Chelsea story, there may be another page of success to write on Sunday.
The European champions beat Mexican giants Monterrey, and beat them well. Admittedly they were never expected to do anything else, but this was a performance which built on the improvement shown against Nordsjaelland and Sunderland.
Chelsea started quickly and confidently, the creative trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar buzzing around dangerously behind a livelier-looking Fernando Torres long before the former Valencia playmaker, once again his team’s outstanding performer, swept home Ashley Cole’s low centre.
It was a fourth goal in as many games and an 11th of the season in all competitions for a man who appears impervious to the atmosphere of perennial crisis which surrounds this club.
Oscar, whose delightful backheel gave Cole the room to cross, was resplendent throughout, dazzling with his skill, flair and vision even as he hinted, much like his team, that he was nowhere near pushing top gear.
Hazard, meanwhile, tormented the unfortunate Sergio Perez at will on the left flank, and looks to be re-finding the form which saw him make a blistering entrance to Premier League football this season.
Further back, David Luiz impressed enough to suggest that, while this was his first start in a midfield role, it will likely not be his last. The Brazilian who began his career as a left winger in the Sao Paulo youth ranks looked at home alongside Jon Obi Mikel in the middle of the park, feeding Torres early and accurately, although it is unlikely he will be granted the same amount of space against more accomplished opposition.
Torres himself continued the improvement which has coincided with Chelsea pulling themselves out of the despair garnered by the departure of Di Matteo, the arrival of Benitez and a run of one win in 11 matches.
Detractors will say with justification that the Spaniard’s ‘revival’ cannot be shown to be more than simply another false dawn until he passes a sterner test, but for the third time in a row he impressed against the opposition put in front of him.
Chelsea looked sharper on the transition from defence to attack, and the fluidity on show in the final third is now once again approaching the thrilling levels reached under Di Matteo. At the start of the second half their intensity overwhelmed Monterrey and, but for the need to conserve energy, the score could easily have been rendered embarrassing for the Mexicans.
Despite the positives, Benitez will be concerned that his side are still to find the consistent level of defensive solidity he expects. Cesar Azpilicueta had arguably his worst match in a Blue shirt up against the tricky Jesus Corona, and Aldo De Nigris caused enough problems for Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill to suggest the absence of John Terry is still keenly felt.
Corinthians will surely provide a sterner test. The Club World Cup final is a marquee date in the club calendar in South America, and the Brazilian giants are backed up by some 20,000 supporters in Japan. Boss Tite prides his teams on compact, disciplined and defensively solid play. He will expect no less on Sunday.
But Chelsea, too, have more than enough incentive. Boss Rafa Benitez is bidding to join countryman Pep Guardiola in the exclusive group of managers who have won this trophy twice, at the very scene of one of his greatest managerial disappointments with Liverpool in 2005. If he can put himself in the same bracket as the great Catalan, maybe he can deter Roman Abramovich from pursuing him.
It will also be a special occasion for the club’s Brazilian contingent. Oscar recently revealed he grew up dreaming of playing in this competition. His only previous experience came in the form of a 15-minute cameo as Internacional surprisingly crashed out at the semi-final stage to Congolese champions TP Mazembe in 2010. David Luiz is a boyhood Corinthians fan.
But perhaps more than anything else, the unique nature of this opportunity will focus the mind. Chelsea had to win the Champions League to get here. They are not likely to be back any time soon – at least not next year.
Whether they truly are Europe’s finest is irrelevant; they have one chance to earn the title of ‘World Champions’. The time, in a very real sense, is now.
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