The victory over West Bromwich Albion in our last league match had been a positive step in terms of performance. Although one of our main floors was still evident, not being able to kill off a match, and this could have cost us towards the end. Taking into account the poor display from the baggies, it had been the best Chelsea performance for sometime. In attack our build up play was more akin to what we had been used to seeing from a confident, inform Chelsea. Transition from back to front and link up play were much better, and the side looked threatening. Defensively, few chances were conceded, and balls in the air dominated by our centre halves. Was it too much to hope that the corner might have been turned? Maybe it was just pure optimism on my part that we might be able to string two consecutive performances of note together, as it certainly didnt materialise in Bucharest.
It was always going to be a tough match, with a partisan home crowd packed into the National arena, buoyed by their penalty shootout victory over Ajax in the previous round. Steaua started brightly, having a lot of the ball, and pinning us back in our own half for extended periods. Starting away matches slowly is becoming a trait that Benitez needs to eradicate.
Steaua Bucharest were very comfortable in possession, and although they didnt really test Petr Cech in the opening half hour, they used the ball much better than Chelsea. Left back Latovievici was a threat overlapping, and proved so throughout the match. Hazard, who initially started wide on the right, didnt track him on a few occasions, allowing space for him to roam and cross. Benayoun started on the other flank, but when they swapped over he did a better job of tracking Latovievici. Unfortunately we had been made to pay before this. In the 34th minute Latovievicis cross swung deep to the back post, where Steaua striker Rusescu had got goal side of Bertrand. Bertrand had an arm across his body trying to stay in front, and as they both jumped to contest the ball, Rusescu fell to the floor, and the referee pointed to the spot. This was an extremely soft penalty, and looked no more than a tussle for the ball that you would see in any penalty area when players contest a cross. Rusescu, Steauas top scorer this season with 24 so far, dispatched the penalty low and hard to Cechs right as he was beaten by its pace.
This was a wake up call, and we reacted in kind. We matched Steaua for possession in the final ten minutes of the half, and kept the ball better than we had done earlier in the half. Possession had been carelessly surrendered prior to this, in a fashion similar to the away match against Sparta Prague. The difference was that Sparta were giving the ball away as much as we were, where as Steaua are much more competent with the ball.
Neat play from Lampard and Hazard managed to find Benayoun between their centre backs, but his side-footed effort was saved excellently by Steaua keeper Tatarusanu low to his right. This was the only real chance we created in the first half, but it had been as a result of better link play than we had produced up until that point, and this was by no means as bad a performance as we had produced in Prague.
The hope was that we could build on this in the second half. We started promisingly, taking charge of possession and making Steaua sit and defend against us, which we hadnt done enough of in the first half. Steaua were making it tough though. They defended well, they were organised in their system from front to back, pressing our deeper midfielders and full backs without leaving themselves exposed behind.
As the half went on we continued to have the lions share of possession, but we werent going anywhere with it. The now familiar story was developing, as we struggled to break the opposition down, we ended up passing sideways along the half way line, Lampard to Bertrand, back to Lampard, then Mikel, out to Ivanovic on the other side, then back to the middle. The longer this went on, more long balls were creeping in, hit towards the Steaua backline who won every single one of them. Benitez brought Mata on for Benayoun with 25 minutes left, trying to get him in the areas where he can affect matches like this, like Oscar had done in Prague. He must have wondered what the point was as long balls soared over his head towards the ever ineffectual Fernando Torres. On rare occasions we did managed to get Oscar, or Mata on the ball between the lines, but either it came out wide or backwards, or the final pass was lacking. There was a threat of being caught on the break as well, and on a couple of occasions quick balls forward from Prague resulted in shots that Cech had to deal with.
Lampard had been deep for most of our attacks, but he did find Torres with a looping ball in the 73rd minute. He flicked it on to Hazard, who fired over the top from a wide angle on the right.
Marco Marin had our only other effort on target. He had entered the fray in the 75th minute for Hazard. He cut in from the left after beating Rapa, his shot turned round for a corner.
The second half had been reminiscent of the Sparta Prague away leg, as it had rolled on. No cutting edge and what looked like a distinct lack of belief. While we escaped with a good result in that encounter, we leave this one with a one goal deficit, the knowledge that if Steaua score at the Bridge then we need three, and perhaps more worrying, a return to the sort of uninspiring, directionless display that is becoming the hallmark of Rafael Benitez.
Steaua Bucharest 4-2-3-1
Tatarusanu; Rapa; Szukala, Chirches, Latovievici;
Bourceanu, Pintilli; (Prepelita 58), Popa, Chipciu, Tanase; (Tatu 82)
Rusescu, (Gardos 90).
Cech; Ivanovic, Terry*, Luiz, Bertrand;
Mikel, Lampard; Benayoun, (Mata 64), Oscar, Hazard; (Marin 75)
Referee: Sergei Karasev.