Late substitute, Oscar, was the difference between Chelsea and Sparta Prague in a 1-0 win in the Europe League. His late goal gave Chelsea an away goal to take into the second leg at Stamford Bridge next week.
After exiting the Champions League early, enthusiasm for Europe’s secondary competition was hard to find. But Rafa Benitez named a strong team to face Sparta on a cold Prague night. Petr Cech returned to face his old side. Ryan Bertrand replaced the rested Ashley Cole. Captain, John Terry continued on the bench and Marko Marin replaced Oscar in midfield.
Chelsea started brightly. A combination of smooth movement and quick passing between Lampard, Ramires, Marin, Hazard and Mata caused problems in front of the Sparta defence. But it wasn’t doing much to penetrate the defence and trouble the keeper. Marin broke down the left hand side on eight minutes before playing a reverse ball to Hazard. He crossed dangerously into the six-yard box but Torres made no attempt to get to the ball. The pressure continued with long distance efforts from Frank Lampard in search of his 199th Chelsea goal.
But things soon started to slow down. The Blues took the foot off the gas and the match quickly became and very dry and drab affair. Neither team looked likely to break the deadlock in the first half. The biggest talking point of the half was Svejdik’s hair.
Very little changed after the break. There was no urgency or tempo from Chelsea and Sparta just edged the possession and created problems for the defence. You’d be forgiven for paying more attention to Sparta’s PA that sounded remarkably like an ice cream van. I think an ice cream probably would’ve made watching the match a bit more bearable. Marin was bright on the left flank but he was sloppy in possession.
Benitez’ first substitution was un-inspired. Yossi Benayoun came on to replace Marin on the left. But, he offered nothing to the team and had no impact. The other substitution was much better. Just 45 seconds after coming on, Oscar scored a brilliantly worked goal to give Chelsea the lead. He jinked passed the Sparta midfield to the edge of the box, and played a delightful one-two with Hazard before neatly slotting the ball past the keeper.
That was enough to seal victory. Benitez and the team will be happy to come away with a win and an away goal in spite of the performance. Although it wasn’t the most pleasing football match, Chelsea may have just one foot into the next round of the Europa League.