Europe is still proving to be Chelsea's Achilles' heel. They produced some great football at times against Internazionale last night, enjoying the bulk of the possession and creating by far the greater number of attempts on goal, but they were ultimately undone by the man out of whose shadow they still struggle to emerge.
Jose Mourinho, the man who led Chelsea to more trophies than any other manager in the club's history, was the architect of their downfall on a night when the football far exceeded the pre-match expectation.
Chelsea still find it tough to impose themselves in Europe. On the ground where a week ago Manchester United pulled off a memorable victory over Milan, Chelsea had their moments but in the end face an uphill task if they are to make it through to the quarter-finals. Carlo Ancelotti was brought in as Chelsea manager in the summer to improve on their record of never having won the Champions League despite reaching the semi-finals five times in the past six seasons. Going out in the second round was not part of the plan.
Salomon Kalou's second-half goal gives Chelsea hope they can overturn the deficit when the teams meet again next month at Stamford Bridge. But they are likely to have to do it without their influential goalkeeper Petr Cech, who was carried off after an hour with a calf injury.
Losing the first leg is one thing; but to lose such a player as Cech at such a key moment in the season could be of much greater consequence to the Premier League leaders. Cech has been close to his best form in recent weeks, but as he was taken off after falling awkwardly catching a routine cross Ancelotti feared the worst.
It was a blow that could have cost Chelsea dear, but replacement Henrique Hilario was not really tested in the final 30 minutes of the match. Unfortunately for Chelsea, by that time the damage had already been done.
The careful planning Ancelotti had put into this match was undone in the third minute. Thiago Motta found Samuel Eto'o and the Cameroon international passed to Wesley Sneijder, who threw a dummy to allow the ball on to Diego Milito. The Argentine took a touch and turned inside John Terry with alarming ease before dispatching a low shot inside Cech's near post. Mourinho was the picture of restraint in the home dugout, nodding his head as if somehow this had been just as he had planned it.
The early goal forced Chelsea out of their shell, giving life to a game that before kick-off had all the makings of a tight, tactical contest. Instead it was a flowing contest between two of the finest sides left in the competition. For once, the football lived up to the billing as the match took on a rhythm of thrust and counter-thrust. After all the pre-match talk dominated by the contrasting characters of the two managers, it was refreshing to see the players express themselves with such enthusiastic creativity.
The visitors, decked out all in white, recovered their composure as Internazionale began to dish out the physical stuff, with Michael Ballack receiving a boot in the face from Thiago Motta, who was booked. The German was also fouled by Dejan Stankovic, providing Didier Drogba with a chance from a free-kick. The Ivorian stepped up and hit a dipping shot that thumped against the crossbar of the Internazionale goal and bounced down to safety, a yard in front of the goal.
A feature of Chelsea's play was the willingness of both full-backs to push forward at every opportunity. Florent Malouda proved to be an able stand-in at left-back, bombing forward as often as he could. It also came as little surprise when a run by the energetic Branislav Ivanovic, the unsung hero of the Chelsea team this season, created the equaliser. The Serbian defender carried the ball far further than he should have been allowed, before he teed up Kalou, who placed his shot through a forest of players, which probably explains why Julio Cesar failed to keep it out. Kalou's goal, and his all-round display, justified Ancelotti's decision to pick him ahead of Joe Cole.
Much though Chelsea deserved to be level, parity lasted only four minutes as Internazionale hit back in spectacular fashion. Ricardo Carvalho headed away Sneijder's cross only as far as Esteban Cambiasso, whose initial shot was blocked by John Terry. Internazionale's Argentinian midfielder latched on to the rebound in an instant, and fired an unstoppable shot past Cech. It was to prove Cech's last meaningful action in the game, as he was carried off shortly afterwards.
The Inter fans packed into San Siro saluted the goalkeeper as he departed in obvious pain. Initial reports that Cech had torn his cruciate ligament proved incorrect, but the calf strain could not have come at a worse time for Chelsea who cannot afford any more defensive slips in the return leg.
The Spanish referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez did Chelsea no favours, denying them a clear penalty in first-half stoppage time. Kalou bore down on the Internazionale goal, only to have his heels clipped by Walter Samuel. Gonzalez turned down Chelsea's claims for a penalty, although subsequent TV replays showed he had got the decision wrong.
The tie is now perfectly poised for the second leg in three weeks' time, a tempting prize for either side to claim at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho's team has laid the foundation for making the manager's return to his old stamping ground a triumphant one. Yet Ancelotti will have seen enough in Chelsea's vibrant performance to give him the belief that his side can prosper. He just has to pass that belief on to his players, who have to overcome Internazionale and the psychological scars of years of failure in Europe.
Internazionale (4-3-1-2): Julio Cesar; Maicon, Samuel, Lucio, Zanetti; Stankovic (Muntari, 84), Cambiasso, Thiago Motta (Balotelli, 58); Sneijder; Milito, Eto'o (Pandev, 67). Substitutes not used: Toldo (gk), Cordoba, Quaresma, Mariga.
Chelsea (4-3-2-1): Cech (Hilario 61); Ivanovic, Carvalho, Terry, Malouda; Ballack, Mikel, Lampard; Anelka, Kalou (Sturridge, 78); Drogba. Substitutes not used: J Cole, Alex, Belletti, Bruma, Borini.
Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).
Man for man marking, by Jon Culley
Beaten when Drogba's free-kick hit bar. Should have done better when Kalou equalised. 5/10
Struggled against Kalou and Malouda defensively but powerful threat going forward. 6
Generally solid but lucky not to concede a penalty when he brought down Kalou. 6
Inter's best defender, spotting danger early and seldom letting anyone pass him 8
Not tested enough along flank by Anelka or Ivanovic, giving him licence to go forward 6
Broke down attacks and helped central defenders counter Drogba's threat. 7
Impressive work rate in front of back four and shot for second goal was unstoppable. 7
Under pressure after early yellow card but did well against Lampard and Ballack. 6
Innovative and unpredictable, worried Chelsea throughout with his speed. 8
Supplied pass for opening goal but miskick on 33 minutes wasted a great chance for 2-0. 6
Took his goal clinically and combined well with Eto'o to keep Chelsea stretched. 7
Mario Balotelli (for Motta, 58) 5; Goran Pandev (for Eto'o, 67); 6 Sulley Muntari (for Stankovic, 84) n/a
Exposed by Terry's mistake for Milito's goal, no chance against Cambiasso. 6/10
Steady at back, offered little going forward until paved way for Kalou's equaliser. 6
More secure than Terry in central defence but dragged wide by Malouda's vulnerability. 6
At fault letting Milito turn him too easily for opening goal. Lucky over Eto's miskick 4
No full-back, he struggled against Maicon, even more against pace of Balotelli. 4
John Obi Mikel
Tried sensibly to put width into Chelsea's , but kept too busy against Sneijder. 5
Popped up to test Cesar in first half, but quality of passing was below standard. 4
Laboured after missing weekend game but almost scored after 64 minutes. 6
Struggled to make an impression in attack and a little careless in his defending. 5
Hit bar with superb free-kick and his power was always the biggest threat to Inter. 7
Fine, controlled finish for Chelsea's equaliser but did not deliver enough crosses. 6
Hilario (for Cech, 61) 6; Daniel Sturridge (for Kalou, 77) 6.Reuse content