Jose Mourinho refused to blame his players, instead pointing to fatigue, as Chelsea looked out like a light after a late sucker punch in Basel yet somehow sleepwalked into the knockout phase of the Champions League last night.
“I think the team paid today the price for their international 15 days”, claimed Mourinho after watching his side failed to register a single shot on their Swiss opponents’ goal before conceding an 87th minute winner to Mohamed Salah, who confirmed his increasing worth to his team and the club’s board by scoring his third in as many meetings with the Blues through a composed run and finish.
A long ball from centre-back Fabian Schär – a bank intern but two years ago – was enough to catch Branislav Ivanovic cold, while frantic instructions accompanying the oncoming Kevin De Bruyne were being issued from the touchline. Then, when Petr Cech reacted hesitantly to a loose touch from Salah, the winger had all the invitation he needed to lift the ball left-footed over the Czech keeper via a glove into the far corner of the Chelsea net.
However, as their manager’s ‘sleeping’ gesture failed to rouse them from their slumbers in time to alter their own outcome, the Europa League holders were handed a lifeline as Schalke 04 and Steaua Bucharest shared the spoils in the Romanian capital to leave 2012’s winners a point clear at the Group E summit with one game to play.
Attentions are soon to turn to Matchday 6 and the visit to West London of rock-bottom Bucharest, when the Blues could render yesterday’s last-gasp goal irrelevant by gaining the win that would have guaranteed top spot regardless of this result and up the odds of a favourable draw in the last-16.
Whereas Mourinho would have liked to have used what perhaps ought to have been a dead rubber to change, in order to rest key performers and offer opportunities to those underused thus far, his focus must now be on who to chop as his team go in search of a potentially crucial three points to ease concerns over a worrying recent dip in form.
“I made one change with Eden (Hazard) as I thought he could make a difference coming from the bench but perhaps I should have changed more players” was the self-assessment of Chelsea’s chief selector and, with Southampton at Stamford Bridge next up ahead of a typically hectic end-of-year programme, more wholesale rotation may be required if his squad are to survive the challenges set for them on all fronts at this critical point in the footballing calendar.
Mourinho’s acknowledgement will be music to Juan Mata’s ears. The club’s reigning Player of the Year has found himself out in the cold with startling regularity this season and, along with Ashley Cole, David Luiz and, to some extent, others including De Bruyne and even Michael Essien, can count himself unlucky not to have featured more frequently over the course of the campaign up until now.
All talk prior to the match centred on the Special One’s not-so-notable new haircut and the contest itself proved about as entertaining as watching the grey hairs grow back above the permanently furrowed brow of the Portuguese.
With the visitors struggling to string passes together on a hard pitch that accounted for Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroonian succumbing to what appeared to be a groin strain late in the first half, the game seemed destined to drift into mediocrity; another casualty of the combination of shy hosts, a void of ambition from the visitors and pernickety refereeing often all too evident in the group stages of this customarily slow-burning competition.
But as the 90-minute mark approached, Chelsea’s eleven switched off and allowed enterprising but eminently beatable opposition to do the ‘double‘ over the club to send the travelling faithful packing with little to show for their troubles other than the knowledge that they will be able to do it all over again in the Spring.
What sort of trip they face may well turn on the outcome of the Steaua clash, with any from Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain, Real and Atletico Madrid lying in wait as it stands should the Blues fail to dispatch the marooned minnows at home on December 11.
‘Keep your hair on’ was very much the order of the day here, as Mourinho was magnanimous in defeat during interviews immediately following his side’s sorry capitulation. Any more carelessness of the calibre on display at St. Jakob-Park in their upcoming fixtures, on the other hand, could still see him tearing out the remaining few strands, as well as losing more than the odd night’s sleep at the time of year when nights are long and patience short, especially in this part of town.