The cherry rolled off the cake.
It had been so satisfying until then, too: a trio of well-worked goals in a routine 3-1 win over an enterprising Sporting outfit; successful run-outs for a host of players in need of boosts in form and/or fitness; even time for a third John Obi Mikel goal of what has been a record-shattering past fifteen months for the Nigerian, as the Blues shrugged their Portuguese opponents aside to glide over the Champions League’s first hurdle; the proverbial piece of pastel de nata.
And yet victory could still have tasted that little bit sweeter.
As Ruben Loftus-Cheek rounded Sporting goalkeeper Patricio deep in stoppage time in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, it seemed as though the aims and ardour of all inside the stadium was about to come to fruition. Some of the Stamford Bridge crowd would have had more reason to cheer than others, of course, should the 18-year-old academy product who has already been at the club for a decade have managed to find the net or, better still, done so from an onside position.
Had the robust teenager capped off his cameo with a goal, it would surely have provided vindication, validation even, for those strategic bods behind the scenes in West London. Those investors of £8m annually into the academy who are so revered for their equally eager and regular farming of youngsters out on loan with the aim of turning a profit, while still remaining competitive enough to feature in five of the last seven FA Youth Cup Finals.
RLC – for that is what he is surely destined to be dubbed in this acronym-obsessed era of anti-literature– skippered last season’s victorious side in that competition and, had his effort not hit the side netting, his graduation would have appeared that giant step closer, perhaps even justifying his manager Jose Mourinho’s mystifying decision to give him merely 10 minutes of what was effectively the archetypal ‘dead rubber’ in which to strut his stuff.
As it turned out, the thoughts of his current coach and former Chelsea local lad-turned-midfield terrier, Jody Morris, on duty in the Sky Studio for the match, were all RLC had to show for his composed yet suitably aggressive endeavour: “Meh, he did alright”, bubble-bursted the one-time European Cup Winners’ Cup winner.
“I said he needs to be bring me a bottle of wine, but a good one”, was what Mourinho had to say when asked of his utterings to the youngster on the occasion of his first team debut, prior to which the Portuguese had involved his new home-made hype-generator in the pre-match press briefings for the game against his countrymen.
Of the decision to delay the introduction of the undercard, Mourinho insisted “We tried to find the right time…to give him comfortable conditions to play”. Judging by a first competitive effort at control – one that fired the ball from his foot like a gilet going out of style – the fashionable entrance may have been well-judged by his consistently cool Head Coach.
The day was supposed to be all about new ground. This was the first ever competitive meeting of the two sides on these shores and extra spice was set to be added by the visitors’ hopes of progression for only the second ever time hanging in the balance as they arrived in the Capital. Once the flare-led smoke had cleared, however, it was ex-Chelsea boss Roberto di Matteo’s Schalke side who had snatched second spot from the Lions’ clutches by winning in Slovenia.
It was, at least, a tale of rejuvenation for several Chelsea stars, including Andre Schϋrrle, scorer of the second goal with a neat turn and finish from outside the area that seemed to both literally and figuratively lift the German, whom Mourinho said is “always in my plans when he is in top form [but] needs to adapt better to the Premier League” and who himself admitted afterwards that he felt relieved “after a not so positive time for me”.
The goal came as the culmination of a fast start that saw Felipe Luis once more showcase his attacking skillset by nutmegging Ricardo Esgaio to earn a penalty that was stroked home by Cesc Fabregas after eight minutes, before Schϋrrle rounded off a neat passing move that had received the necessary injection of impetus from the irrepressible Nemanja Matic by beating the helpless Patricio low to his left with just over quarter of an hour on the clock, handing the hosts a comfortable cushion at the break.
The mood was momentarily dampened just minutes after the restart, as Luis’ defensive deficiencies were brought sharply into focus, the Brazilian suffering from a lack of protection from the disappointing Mohamed Salah (one wonders if we shall see the Egyptian at the Bridge again with the transfer window looming) and being comprehensively beaten to the by-line by his opposite number. The back-post cross was only half-cleared by Schϋrrle and, with Blues defenders slow to charge down the loose ball, Jonathan Silva fired home to reduce the arrears.
But just over five minutes later the cushion had been restored as Fabregas’ set-piece was flicked on by Gary Cahill for Mikel to register with a 1-yard blockbuster and allow his manager breathing space with which to rest and tinker with his team, leading to a belated call for the aforementioned star of the show.
Mourinho rather summed up proceedings by offering his post-match condolences to Sporting (the name itself proving an apt summation of the nature of their evening’s contribution) and warned, when asked to assess his side’s chances of lifting the Prince Charles-like trophy in May that “there are a few sharks in the ocean”. A note of caution, then, that bigger challenges lie in wait for young RLC and the rest of this burgeoning squad.