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Misfiring Chelsea short of old swagger

Thursday, 12 December 2013 - 9:28am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

It may not have been particularly pretty or impressive, but Chelsea qualified on Wednesday night for the Cham-pions League knockout stages as winners of Group E.

Having lost home and away against Basle, Chelsea produced the bare minimum to top a group that really should have been far more comfortable.

The game last night against Steaua Bucharest, who were already confirmed as finishing bottom of the group, was not as easy as Chelsea might have liked, either. At least a striker was on the scoresheet for Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, as Demba Ba netted the winning goal.

Ba also amused Mourinho and most of the Stamford Bridge crowd by missing the easiest of chances. But the Portuguese was angered by a laser pen being aimed at his players from the stands. Mourinho made seven changes to the side that was beaten by Stoke City in the Premier League, the most eye-catching of which was the inclusion of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. The 41-year-old was given a Champions League debut.

Ashley Cole returned at left-back, David Luiz took over from Gary Cahill in the centre of defence and Ba was handed a start up front. David Luiz volleyed an early chance wide from Willian's corner and Oscar, back from an ankle injury, was just off target with a powerful shot. There was confusion over who exactly gave Chelsea the lead, with Ba, then Daniel Georgievski and Ba again being credited with the 10th-minute goal.

Another Willian's corner was headed on by Oscar and the ball looked to have been bundled into the net by Ba, who was named as the goalscorer by the Stamford Bridge stadium announcer. The scoreboard showed Georgievski as netting an own goal, but Ba celebrated nonetheless - perhaps hoping Mourinho would be convinced that one of his forwards had hit the back of the net. Uefa was convinced, as the name of the opening goalscorer changed to Ba shortly before half-time.

Mourinho has been frustrated by the inability of his strikers to take their chances. The defence has also been a cause for major concern, with Mourinho joking he has been fearful to put Terry and co up against the training ground dummies. It was the Chelsea backline who appeared statuesque in the 13th minute, as they were completely caught out by a long ball through the middle but Gabriel Iancu dragged the ball wide with just Schwarzer to beat.

Cole had not started a Chelsea game since the beginning of November and it showed during the early stages. Having displayed a couple of heavy touches and wastefully run the ball out of play, Cole was then caught out by Georgievski but Schwarzer gratefully collected the cross. Mourinho was off his bench to have a word with both Cole and Terry to try to inspire some cohesion on the left. Despite the fact his team were winning, Mourinho's assessment that Chelsea should not be considered among the favourites to win the Champions League looked accurate.

There was a positive moment just before the half-hour, as Eden Hazard produced a good cross that picked out Branislav Ivanovic but the Steaua goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu made a wonderful save from the header. Frank Lampard produced a typical 25-yard effort that sailed over the crossbar, as Chelsea struggled to create clear-cut opportunities.

Cole also tried his luck from long-range, forcing Tatarusanu to gather his powerful low drive. The left-back was rolling in agony minutes after the restart after being caught late by a sliding tackle from Georgievski, who was then promptly booked. Mourinho sent his substitutes out to warm up, with his side's performance still failing to provide much relief from the cold conditions. When Ba blazed a Willian cross over the bar from six yards out, Mourinho simply turned to his bench and laughed. Chelsea's defenders were as unconvincing as Ba, failing to clear the ball before Steaua captain Mihai Pintilii shot wide. Then Iancu should have passed to Paul Pirvulescu, instead of firing wildly over moments later.

It was no surprise when Mourinho decided to make a change with a little over 20 minutes remaining and protect Oscar with Saturday's game against Crystal Palace in mind. Andre Schurrle, who scored twice at Stoke, replaced the Brazilian. The substitute made an immediate impact, dancing around Georgievski in the area. Tatarusanu kept out the German's shot from a tight angle and Hazard headed over the bar. Ba side-footed wide in the closing stages and also saw a goal correctly ruled out for offside. It mattered not, but Chelsea will be praying for a favourable draw in the last 16.

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