And for all that fuss. Make or break. Do or die. All or nothing. Call it what you like. Call Didier too old. Call Cech unreliable. Call Luiz erratic. Call Terry old. But on the pitch, Chelsea did the talking, sauntering into the next round with a very competent and assured performance. Drogba rolled back the years with two brilliant goals, Mata showed how effective he will be to Chelsea by providing both assists for Drogba, with the Ivorian also nabbing an assist for the part he played in setting up Ramires. This was the Drogba of old. The feared Drogba, the feared Chelsea. And for all that fuss, the anxiety over whether we would even qualify, or drop down to the lowly levels that Liverpool aren’t even worthy of, rounded off with the bonus that we finished top of the group. Leverkusen’s draw in Genk means that we cannot face Real Madrid, Barcelona or Inter Milan in the next round, a bit of happiness for AVB after a tough few weeks. The draw on Friday week will see who we face, but over the next few days, AVB will take his well-earned rest, preparing his players for a crunch match versus Manchester City on Monday.
AVB decided to make just the one change for the biggest match of Chelsea’s season so far. It was surprising that it was Frank Lampard who was the casualty, dropped in favour of Meireles. So often the hero, the lynchpin of Chelsea’s midfield, and yet he was not called upon for one minute of Chelsea’s crunch match. Cue a mass rush of people saying that Lampard was no longer a regular starter, all mis-led. AVB, knowing the importance of keeping a clean sheet, decided to not put Lampard on, opting for the more defensive duo in Meireles, and the precocious Romeu.
Three minutes in and it was a case of “Frank who?” The front trio combined well – first Sturridge passed to Mata, and then the former Valencia man squared to Drogba, who, thinking on the spot, got the ball onto his left foot and shot past Diego Alves. All the pressure Chelsea should have been feeling appeared to be on Valencia. The goal gave Chelsea some much-needed relief. But the fact was, nothing had changed. Valencia would qualify with a 1-1 draw, and Chelsea’s earlier relief soon turned into one of anxiety, Jordi Alba hitting Cech’s right-hand post. Albeida was next to try, forcing a fine Cech save.
It was a frenetic opening, but it was Chelsea who scored the next goal of the game, in the 22nd minute. Drogba held up beautifully, and skipped past the Valencia defence. Spotting Ramires’ run, he passed the ball through to him, albeit a bit wayward. No matter, however, as Victor Ruiz was caught dozing, and the ever-energetic Brazilian duly slotted past the keeper: 2-0.
Sturridge was desperate to continue his goal-scoring form, and a few of his shots were saved by Alves, when really he could – and should – have squared to his team-mates in the box. Greedy maybe, but who can blame a man who simply wants to score and be in contention for a Euro 2012 spot. The first half ended, with a very satisfied looking AVB.
The second half was no different. Sturridge continued to have changes, and an early change in the half saw Ramires go off for the more defensive Mikel. The agenda was simply to shut out Valencia, and AVB’s initial 4-3-3 formation was fast-becoming a 4-5-1, with Mata and Sturridge sitting deep. The stuffed midfield could not stop Sofiane Feghouli having a pop at goal though, palmed away by Cech. The experienced JT was leading the line by example, and though the word ‘anonymous’ to describe a football player is normally a reference of negativity, it was one of pleasant surprise to see the term fitted to Luiz, who was not putting a foot wrong, or running all over the place.
Chelsea’s third goal came, killing all Valencia hope. Mata, gifted the ball in a prominent position, fed through to Drogba, who did well to keep onside. The Ivorian nonchalantly knocked the ball into the goal with the outside of his right boot, a fine goal to round off a super display by him, appreciated by his fellow team-mates.
Torres came on seconds after for the 33-year-old, and a rapturous applause broke out, whether for the departure of the match-winner or the introduction of a not in-form Spaniard, take your pick. Typically, Torres played little part, but the win was always Chelsea’s, right from the third minute onwards.